Archives For Paul

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x683.jpgDay 14

Along the course of ministry you overhear tidbits of wisdom that, like stones against the wind and the sea, with the passage of time acquire the sheen of something like the absolute.

The Truth.

One such folk koan came to me by way of Fred Holly some 14 years ago.

Fred was an elderly parishioner at the tiny New Jersey church where I served part-time as pastor. It was the sort of church where the term ‘elderly parishioner’ was woefully redundant.

A curmudgeonly sort, Fred let it be known often that he only attended worship out of the habit enforced by his wife; nevermind, that the late Mrs. Holly had left the Earth around the same time Fred’s beloved Tricky Dick had left the White House.

Since then Fred had been unfailing in complaining about his Sunday obligation.

Similarly Fred was vocal in his assessment that my ‘only attribute worth a damn’ was my ‘sexy dame of a wife.’

In the first spring of my ministry I visited Fred in the ICU of a Bucks County Hospital. The day before he’d had a bypass done on more of a heart than I’d believed he’d possessed.

His hair was mussed and greasy. His eyes looked small and round- mole like- without their glasses. His gown hung down off his beefy shoulders like a cotton evening dress.

When I walked in he was sitting up in bed, a large teddy bear in his lap. Whenever he breathed or coughed, he clutched the teddy bear against the incision that ran from his groin to his collar. And every time he’d grimace, red-faced and veined- the agony in his expression in inverse proportion to the blank, serene visage of the bear.

After one painful coughing fit that ended, Fred seemed amused, with a long, thunderous yawp of a fart, Fred wiped the sweat from his forehead and said:

‘Jesus, God damn, Rev. I’ll tell you what:

Get all your prayin’ in when you’re healthy. It’s just too damn hard to pray when you’re busted up and sick.’

And right then and there it struck me as true and sound in the way of other sayings like ‘Never eat yellow snow’ or ‘Don’t play leapfrog with a unicorn’ or ‘Sharing your medical info is always more embarrassing when its shared with a moderately attractive nurse practitioner of your approximate age.’ 

‘Get all your prayin’ in when you’re healthy. It’s just too damn hard to pray when you’re busted up and sick.’

It had the ring of a proverb even though I’ve not heard it elsewhere and have not returned to it since.

Not until lately.

Conventional wisdom and all, you might just as easily expect it to be the opposite, but Fred is right: praying is hard when you’re busted up and sick.

During my first A Cycle of chemo-poison, after one of my several ‘walks’ with the earnest Licensed Clinical Social Worker, my slippered feet found their way to the hospital chapel. Having listened to the LCSW spout new-agey and not a little patronizing about mindfulness and Zen meditation, contrarian-me determined to do some old school, Holy Roman, hegemonic praying.

I knew the hospital had a chapel because I’d seen it- on a constant, 24 hour live camera stream on the hospital’s uppermost television channel, just after the porny Latin Soap Opera station.

It was like the National Zoo’s panda cam without the pandas; every time I flipped past it to get to Wolf Blitzer or PTI or 19 Kids and Counting, the chapel was always empty.

So I wasn’t surprised when I opened the chapel door, drug my drug pole in behind me, and found the little sanctuary empty. Like such spaces in airports and colleges and funeral homes everywhere, the chapel was so enthusiastically ecumenical as to be bland. It felt more like a little nook at a Courtyard Marriott.

Nonetheless, I sat down in the front row, my chemo my only companion, and attempted to pray in the manner of the saints and martyrs before me.

Later that evening, when the young Muslim woman from Food Services brought me my chicken soup and Ensure, her eyes brightened and, smiling, she said:

‘I saw you on the TV! In the chapel! A patient down the hall turned the channel when I picked up his lunch tray earlier today.’

‘You saw me?’

She nodded and smiled and then added:

‘Poor thing, you must be exhausted.’

I must’ve looked confused.

‘The Muslim way is better,’ she explained, ‘it’s harder to fall asleep when you’re on your  knees.’

The little fact of stage-serious cancer notwithstanding- and I realize this is a bit like Larry Flynt confessing he’s just not that into women- the X-Rated truth of the matter is that I’ve never been very good at prayer.

In the same way that for a time in college I could participate in a conversation in French class about the meaninglessness of existence, Le Jazz, or American imperialism, I know how to pray. But prayer has never been anything like my first language.

Being a duly ordained Reverend (as in: ‘one to be revered’), I can pray. I can do it in a performative, professional manner, but in the same way I can summon something resembling etiquette for a formal dinner even this is not my natural or most comfortable posture. Honestly, even with the little self-awareness I possess, I know that I’m vain enough, despite being introverted, to lap up the approval and/or adoration of an audience; consequently, I’ve always maintained a healthy skepticism regarding public prayer. Both my own and others’.

But the bottom line is-

Healthy or very much not healthy (as the case now is), I’m a piss poor pray-er.

I get restless.

I get bored and, bored, I get distracted

If only God had an email address or a Twitter account or a regular coffee shop where he hung out because closed eyes and bowed head seldom works for me.

Really? ‘Quiet time’ sounds to me exactly like it sounds to my 9 year old: punishment. Or, at least, something to be endured.

Even worse than the boredom that makes you feel incompetent at prayer is the sudden rushing awareness of how superficial is most of your prayer- that leaves you feeling inauthentic.

Incomplete, as a human being.

And then there are those days- more frequent than most pastors will admit- when you’re convinced you’re mistaken about about God, about Christ, about everything else in the creed. On those days prayer especially can feel like 100 Proof Superstition, making you feel the fool.

Given my own dissatisfying experience with prayer, now that I’m sick and/or dying when people tell me they’re praying for me (which everyone does…and I’m grateful) I feel guilty- guilty that my cancer has laid this extra burden upon them that will only lead to them feeling restless or bored or distracted or superstitious and, thus, foolish.

My track record with and previous affections for prayer in no way cancel out the verities I heard in that Bucks County ICU. What was hard and unnatural for me before is damn near impossible since cancer staged a hostile takeover of my body, my blood and my family’s life.

Fred Holly’s teddy bear maxim is as true as Kenny Rogers’ about the relative importance of knowing when to hold ‘em and knowing when to fold ‘em.

I’ve walked away from more than a few prayers these past days and weeks because Fred is (surely he’s a was by now) dead-on:

When you’re busted up in body, mind and soul and sick enough you count it lucky you took out that life insurance policy when you did, praying is damn hard.

For my last CAT Scan, to see if I had any tumors in my upper body like the ones latched on to me all over my lower body (I do), I tried to pray the Lord’s Prayer as I grimaced against my stomach incision, raised my arms over my head and lay still as the camera spun around my chest.

I couldn’t remember all the words.

Temptation.

Trespass.

Daily bread and deliverance.

I kept getting the phrasing in the wrong order.

I’ve led the Lord’s Prayer at least 1,000 times on Sundays alone but, without the backing chorus of a congregation behind me, my rhythm was off.

I’ve tried many times since then to recite it, mostly in the gray hours when the night sweats or the urgent need to piss out the poisons, have left me wide away.

I always screw it up.

Likewise Psalm 23, another prayer that in my former life I knew by heart.

Speaking of the psalms, now that I have cancer and can’t pray worth a damn, I’m amazed that King David, what with his turbulent TMZ life and all, was able to compose as many prayers as he did.

David may be the exception that proves Fred’s rule.

Before my first CAT Scan, done at my GI doctor’s orders, I didn’t pray at all; I hadn’t thought there was a need to pray. I didn’t think there was anything, save a gallstone or two, wrong with me, certainly not the C-word.

I prayed DURING that first CAT Scan however. 

The radiology tech had given me an injection of contrast which, as a side-effect, would give me a warm, wet sensation all over my body, none of which- AND THIS IS KEY- he told me beforehand.

So lying there, unsuspecting under a sheet, my pants pulled down around my ankles, an awareness suddenly and mercilessly washed over me:

‘Oh. My. God. I just shit my pants.’

In the same way there are no atheists in fox holes, this realization immediately gave way to supplication:

‘Please God, let it not be bad. Please God, let me get out here without too many people noticing- especially not the hot receptionist at the front desk.’

It was some kind of prayer to be sure.

Later that night when the GI doctor, who’d just read the results of the scan, called me and threw phrases at me like ‘Are you sitting down?’ and ‘…need to get you into surgery quickly’ and, the doozy, ‘I’ve set up an appointment for you in the morning with an oncologist…’ I was too scared to pray.

Jesus, facing death in the Garden in John’s Gospel, prays for pages upon pages upon pages. I suppose that’s the difference between being God incarnate and just being carnate.

Studying the Hebrew Bible, I learned the ‘proper’ form to prayer, beginning with a robust address to God, some name that hits at the highlights of his resume, and then moving on to praise God for his gracious acts in salvation history and then- and only then- beseeching God to do likewise for you today.

It’s a lesson I’ve reinforced with confirmation classes, organizing prayers like study notes, with the acronym P-T-A:

Praise

Thank

And only then: Ask.

Such niceties are just that, nice. But they’re all but impossible when you feel yourself salivating fear in the corners of your jaw or when you’re just bone-marrow tired.

Fred Holly is/was right.

And it’s not so much that God is absent that makes the praying hard.

Its that the pain and the fear and the fatigue are seemingly more present to you than God.

Most of my prayers now more closely resemble my adolescent, pre-Christian prayers:

Please let me get an A on this quiz.

Please may the Reds beat the A’s in the series.

Please makes these zits go away before the 8th grade dance.

My prayers now are just 1-sentence smoke signals:

Please let me keep the eyebrows and the pubes.

Please let me make it to the toilet in time.

Please let me keep a brave face in front of the boys.

Please keep my voice from cracking when I ask the doctor for my prognosis.

Please keep this from bankrupting us.

Please, if there’s a Hell, send every last insurance company there.

Please, if there’s not a Hell, create one and send every last insurance company there.

And, most recently:

Please don’t have the decently attractive nurse practitioner who’s about my age ask to see my hemorrhoids (an awesome chemo side-effect).

Lately, the closest I can muster anything near an actual prayer is for others.

Like the one I muttered under my breath for the old guy in the waiting room at the oncologist’s office. He wore a herringbone blazer, a pocket square and a boutonniere, and he was there, I overheard, by mistake.

The doctor had decided to discontinue his treatment.

The old man apparently didn’t get the message until he got it a few seats away from me.

And I managed a prayer for the kid with leukemia who rode the elevator up with me yesterday, both us to receive our Neulasta injections. His age (13? 16? 21?) was impossible to determine with no hair, facial or otherwise, to date him.

I know you likely expect a clergyman to confess that cancer, with its attendant aches and terrors, has deepened my prayer life.

Carrying my cross.

Belly of the whale.

Dark night of my soul.

Et cetera.

Nope.

In fact, the prayer I keep coming back to, the prayer I can say in sync with the pain and get through despite the cottony chemo-brain, is that silly prayer I learned as a small child:

‘Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.’

Fred Holly had a genuine hula girl inked on his forearm. He stockpiled for Y2K a year late and one Sunday in Advent he mistook my reading of Mary’s Magnificat for an original sermon. Fred met the final scripture verse for the day with an applause that echoed across the mostly empty pews and said out loud ‘Now that was a good sermon.’

Fred wasn’t what you’d call an intellectual guy; nonetheless, Fred’s bear-embracing maxim yields still deeper truths.

The real problem with prayer when you’re busted up and sick isn’t that you’re busted up and sick.

Being busted up makes the sheer act of prayer hard, sure, but the real problem with prayer when you’re stage-serious sick is a/the theological problem.

Cancer as voracious as it is rare brings to the fore questions so obvious and so omnipresent that we often don’t even see them:

What’s the Point of Prayer?

What’s Prayer Do?

Or, Does It Do Anything?

For What Should We Pray?

To put it more bluntly:

Isn’t it ridiculous to think of God up there in heaven to whom we can plead and who, if we’re lucky or faithful enough, will hear our prayers and provide us with help?

Isn’t it silly (and maybe even idolatrous) to think that through our supplications we can do something to God, incline God a particular way, ignite one of God’s passions, or persuade God into doing something God might otherwise not do?

Of course, I take it as self-evident that the answer to those last two questions is ‘Yes.’

 

I do so not because I have cancer but because I’m a Christian and, like the very first Christians, I believe that God is immutable.

God does not change.

For something to change, after all, there must be some potential in it which is not yet realized. But ‘God’ is the answer we give to the question ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ so in God, obviously, there is no absence of anything, for God is not a being but Being itself.

God does not change (to be more loving, for example) because in God already is the perfection of love itself. Perfect Love is already eternally actual in God; therefore, there’s nothing you can do to make God love you more and- good news- there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less.

To say that God does not change is also to say- it should be noted- that God is not affected.

Especially not by us.

To be changed is to be affected by another outside you. But God does not change because, in God- unlike in creatures- there is no potentiality only actuality. The perfection of all emotions (Love) is already always present, eternally, in God.

God subsists in all things that exist and holds all things in existence at every moment of their existence. God cannot be affected by anything outside God because there is nothing that is outside God.

Alright, but admittedly this all begs the question, a question that becomes more urgent when cancer casts a shadow over your long-term calendar:

If God is immutable, if God doesn’t change, if God by definition can’t change, then what exactly is prayer?

Isn’t prayer the spiritually-sanctioned means by which we attempt to manipulate god to do what we want, ask, or desire?

You see, the real problem with prayer- especially when you’re stage-serious sick- is a theological problem.

If God is immutable, then what does it mean to pray for God to work healing in my life now? What does it mean to pray (as so many put it and so many do for me now) for a miracle? Doesn’t such a prayer imply that God is now, and certainly was prior to cancer’s intrusion upon my life, distant or apart from me?

But I don’t believe God created long ago and is now hands-off unless beckoned or beseeched; I believe God is immutable and that necessarily entails believing that God, who is outside creation, subsists in all things in creation.

If God is immutable, what does it mean to pray for God to be with me through this inscrutable chapter of our lives? Isn’t God already with me? For that matter, if holds all things in existence at every moment of their existence, if God is, as Paul says, the One in whom we live and move and have our being then would there even be a ‘me’ if God was already with me?

And what would it mean to pray for God to forgive my sins, as so many negotiate when they look up to see the Damocles sword of disease hanging over them? If God is immutable, then God quite literally doesn’t give a damn about my sins. We’re the ones who damn.

Since God is immutable, I don’t believe that the Creator could be affected by a creature like me (or my sin) such that he’d be moved against me, to punish me with something like cancer, yet, conversely, what does that mean for all those prayers of all those many wonderful people now asking God to be affected in the other direction, to be moved for me?

That God does not change is, I believe, the only ground upon which Christians can claim with John that ‘God is love,’ which is but John’s way of securing our ability to say that ‘God is like (and always has been) Jesus.’

But if God is indeed unchanging and unchangeable exactly what am I doing- what’s going on- when I sit here sick and busted up and (attempt to) pray?

After stating the obvious (none of us knows how to pray), St. Paul writes that whenever we pray, no matter what it might look like, it’s not actually we who are praying. Rather the Holy Spirit prays in us and through us.

Prayer isn’t something we do.

It’s something God does- better yet, it’s something God shares with God.

And us.

When we pray to God, we’re prayed in by God.

Instead of a practice we perform for results we’ve predetermined, prayer is a kind of parable of the Trinity. All prayer is but an echo of the Son praying to the Father through the Spirit. Rather than hooking God into our internal conversation, prayer catches us up into the eternal conversation Christians call Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

God is the impetus behind our prayers as much (even more?) as the object of them.  The very wants and desires we pray, runs Paul’s argument, are themselves the handiwork of the ever-present Triune God.

What’s this mean when you’re sick and busted-up and trying your damnedest to pray?

Thomas Aquinas doubles-down on Paul’s point when he writes:

‘We should not say ‘in accordance with my prayer, God wills that it should be a fine day’ we should say that ‘God wills it to be a fine day, in accordance with my prayer.’

God wills our prayers as much as God wills the fine day.

What does that mean?

It means, says Aquinas, that God wills it to be a fine day through my prayer; in other words, that it should be more than just a fine day. God wills through me that that particular fine day should be something more, a sacrament of God’s love.

Let me put Aquinas’ point a bit more personally:

‘We should not say ‘in accordance with my prayer, God wills that I should be healed of my cancer’ we should say that ‘God wills that I should be healed of my cancer, in accordance with my prayer.’

That’s no guarantee I’ll be healed.

It’s a guarantee that my desire to be healed, as well as the desire of all those praying for me, isn’t our desire alone or even originally. It’s one shared by- initiated by- the God who prays in us.

Which means maybe that ‘Now I Lay Me’ prayer I learned as a little child is actually the best prayer of all.

I’ve always considered it excessively grim, morbid even, and emblematic of everything I deplore about so much of Christianity: it’s soul-focused and death-obsessed and heaven-directed.

Yet-

If all prayer is rooted in and catches us up into the Father’s love of the Son through the Spirit, then what could be better than to pray that we might be one day incorporated (‘…my soul to take…’) into that love?

Especially when you remember that it’s not really our prayer at all.

SONY DSCAnd you and me too…

This Sunday we continued our sermon series on Richard Stearns’ book Unfinished. My intern, Jimmy Owsley, preached the sermon on Acts 9.

You can listen to it here below, in the sidebar to the right or you can download it in iTunes here.

So our reading today is from Acts, the 5th book of the New Testament. Acts is the follow-up to the Gospel of Luke–it’s the Gospel-writer’s retelling of the story of the beginnings of the Christian church. Our reading, from Acts Chapter 9, is a piece of the author’s introduction to the Apostle Paul (known at the time of this story as Saul). The other part of the introduction happens in Chapters 7 and 8, where we see him oversee the death of the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen.

At this time according to the author, Saul is said to be actively “trying to destroy the church; entering house after house and dragging out men and women,” and imprisoning them for their beliefs.

Saul, a Pharisee, is threatened by this new religious movement within Judaism.

And he is trying to coerce Jesus’ followers in submission through violence.

Basically, Saul is a first-century terrorist.

As some of you know, this Saul, who later comes to be known as Paul, becomes the hero of the Book of Acts, taking the good news of Christ’s new kingdom to far reaches of the Roman Empire. He also becomes the writer of much of our New Testament, giving us theological lenses for understanding the life and work of Jesus. While I would disagree, some historians say Paul has had an even greater effect on the Christian church than Jesus himself.

As for these passages about Saul’s conversion, scholars more knowledgeable than me say that in them Luke is setting up a portrayal of Saul/Paul as the ideal Christian convert. And this isn’t just because Saul is a high-ranking Jewish religio-crat, whose textbook conversion could woo Jewish inquirers into a deeper Christian faith. Although that may be part of it.

Deeper than that though is the fact that Saul’s conversion exemplifies a particular theology of conversion which would come to be one of the central facets to the Christian faith. The story goes like this:

First of all, Saul is a sinner. “The chief of sinners,” as he would later describe himself. He’s done everything wrong. He’s on the wrong page, playing for the wrong team. He is an enthusiastic participant in a system of violence which stands directly and explicitly opposed to the way of Jesus Christ.

And so it is that while Saul is on his way to terrorize Jewish followers of Jesus in the city of Damascus, Jesus himself appears in a flash of light and speaks to him saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” This personal face-to-face encounter with Jesus blinds Saul completely and shatters his will to continue what e was doing.

Then Saul acts in obedience to Jesus. He continues on his way to Damascus, where, instead of inflicting terror, he fasts and prays in visual darkness for 3 days. That is, until the scared and reluctant disciple Ananias shows up.

Now, Ananias has also seen Jesus recently, as we learned in the reading this morning. And he acts obediently, too, despite his qualms about Saul’s shady reputation. Jesus has told him:

“Go, for this man is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites, and I will show him what he will have to suffer for my name.”

Thus Saul the terrorist, the least likely to be a disciple of Christ, is a chosen instrument of God’s will.

The inflictor of suffering upon those who follow the way of Jesus will now live a life enduring suffering in Jesus’ name.

When Ananias arrives, he touches Saul and prays over him. Saul is changed in that interaction and he is filled with the Holy Spirit. Then Ananias introduces Saul to the rest of the disciples at Damascus, among whom Saul lives and learns how to be a disciple. Community is central to Saul’s transformation.

From there, he departs eagerly to do the work the Kingdom of God. He begins utilizing his God-given skills of preaching and teaching for his new Kingdom, proclaiming the grace he received throughout the Empire.

So what does this have to do with us? If Luke is telling us that Saul/Paul is the model convert, what does that mean for you and me?

Well,

  1. Saul is a sinner through and through. Just as each of us is a sinner in need of repentance. Before his encounter with Jesus, he is working completely against the kingdom of God. In some way we all have done and continue to do this. Repentance is an ongoing process.
  2. Although Saul has misused his capabilities, Jesus recognizes in him both the wrongs that he has done and the gifts that God has given him. Jesus comes to Saul personally, just as he does with each of us here this morning.
  3. Jesus calls Saul his “chosen instrument,” a phrase that applies as much to Saul as it does to each of us is. It is in his the midst of his evil intentions that Christ comes to him, sheds light on his wrongdoings, and offers peace.
  4. Next, the personal encounter with Jesus demolishes Saul’s previous worldview and sense of purpose. It realigns his life, as it should ours.
  5. Saul acts in obedience to the One he has encountered, and becomes a disciple of Jesus through the community of faith in Damascus. In order to live as disciples, we must be discipled by someone. We are all called to be in active community with other disciples.
  6. Finally, his transformation doesn’t stop there. And this is the point of the book study Unfinished that we are going through as a church. Through his conversion and discipleship, Saul jumps into a new mission. Rich Stearns describes conversion as change of allegiance–Saul leaves his old allegiances behind and becomes a member of a new Kingdom. He has joined “a new army.”

If we follow this model of discipleship, you and I are called also to be part of a new Kingdom and a new army, whether we thought we were a part of an old one or not.

Our faith in Jesus doesn’t end with his forgiveness or our community, as necessary as those are.

The fulness of Saul’s faith comes when he begins to act on it–to live it out. Saul was given gifts of leadership, eloquence, and a brilliant mind. Maybe those gifts lie in you too–or maybe you are gifted at teaching, or have the mind of an engineer, or a keen sense for justice. Maybe you are gifted at what you do for a career, and maybe your gifts point elsewhere.

But as you and I discover the skills and capabilities we have been given, and as we continue to encounter Jesus in our daily life, we will learn more and more about how we can put those gifts to work for his kingdom.

Now, I have two caveats here:

  1. One is that you don’t have to take off and leave everything you know to fulfill God’s purpose in your life. Saul was on his way to Damascus when Jesus appeared to him. And after that encounter he didn’t decide not to go to Damascus. Rather he did something different when he got there.
  2. The second is that we are called to act on our gifts not as an obligation or something we have to do. Although there will be suffering along the way, using our God-given gifts for the purposes of his kingdom is something that we get to do which gives us meaning and fulfilment.

Like Saul, each of us is a chosen instrument. You have a gift and a calling and a role to play in this story.

You have potential, I have potential, and terrorists like Saul have potential. And there might not be any terrorists here. At least I hope not, unless some of you were the ones who hacked Jason’s blog a week and a half ago. But no matter who we are or what we have done, we are all chosen instruments in the grand vision of God’s kingdom.

And I know that’ll make some of you feel all warm and fuzzy–like kids in my kindergarten class when Mrs. Yani told us we were each special in our own way. To which the cynics of us respond– “if everyone is special, is anyone REALLY special?”

The point is not that we as disciples of Christ are chosen by God above or before anyone else. In fact, some of us are the least likely disciples. The point is that we are each chosen by God for a unique, particular purpose in God’s grand mission of redeeming the world.

Saul encountered Jesus in a flash of light on the road to Damascus. This Sunday morning we encounter him in bread and wine and in one another. Let us each hear what he has to say and discern how he would use us for his mission in the world.

Which is the idea I want to leave you with today. It’s a particular understanding of salvation, which is that:

We are all saved for a purpose.

And as Rich Stearns says, that purpose lies Unfinished.

 

lightstock_55124_small_user_2741517This Sunday I continued our ‘Mystical Christmas’ Advent series by looking at my visit to the dermatologist’s office through the eyes of 4th century theologian and mystic, Gregory of Nazianzus. The text for the Sunday was Paul’s in 2 Corinthians 5.17-21.

You can listen to the sermon here below, to the right in the sidebar or you can download it in iTunes here.

‘God was in Jesus reconciling the world to himself…’

     So I’ve got this mole, right here on my shoulder.

It’s not gross or anything. It’s just large and discolored and has a few hairs growing out of it. ‘Suspicious’ my former pre-med Mrs calls it, right before she points at it and quotes that line from Uncle Buck.

My wife, Ali, has been after me for months to go to the doctor and get it checked out. But, because I’m an idiot, instead of going to the doctor I consulted WebMD, a website- I’m now convinced- that was designed by ISIS to frighten Western infidels. If you haven’t checked out WebMD already, don’t. It’s the most terrifying internet you’ll ever browse.

I consulted it for a suspicious mole, and 12 hours later I logged off in black despair, convinced that I suffer from IBS and TB, convinced that my kids have ADHD and maybe scolios too and that I might as well pre-order those little blue pills because ‘that’ is likely right around the corner for me as well.

To be honest, even though I spend 2-3 hours every day admiring myself in the mirror, I didn’t even notice the mole was there. I didn’t realize it was there until last summer when I took my shirt off at the pool and Ali threw up a little bit in her mouth.

Now obviously me taking my shirt off at the pool is normally an Event (with a capital E), a moment that provokes jealousy among men, aspiration among boys and awakens 50 shades of Darwinian hunger in women.

Like Bernini unveiling his David, normally me taking my shirt off at the pool is a siren call, overpowering all reason and volition and luring the primal attention of every female to be dashed against this rock.

 

But I digress.

The point is when I took my shirt off at the pool last summer and saw Ali wipe the vomit from the corner of her mouth it got my attention.

Ali got after me to go to the doctor. My youngest, Gabriel, who tried to biopsy my mole for his new microscope, got after me. My mom, who is a nurse, got after me. And the voice in my head confirmed what WebMD and all the rest had told me.

But my personal philosophy has always been that if you wait long enough the worst will always happen so for months and months I didn’t do anything about it.

Then one behind-closed-doors-kind-of-night Ali whispered across the pillow that she was never going to touch me again until I scheduled an appointment.

lightstock_55124_small_user_2741517

 

I called the doctor the next morning.

Of course, because I have health insurance, I can’t just call the dermatologist to schedule an appointment. No, that would make us communists.

No, first I had to blow a morning and a co-pay at the general practitioner in order to get a referral to the skin doctor.

The nurse at the general practitioner’s office weighed me and, with a toll booth worker’s affect- took my blood pressure. Even though I told her I was just there for my mole, she insisted on typing my age into her tablet and asking me the questions that my age automatically generated.

First question: Have you experienced depression or thoughts of suicide in the past month? Her second question was ‘Have you noticed an increase in memory loss recently?’ ‘Not that I recall’ I said.

Stone-faced, she moved on to her third question, asking for the date of my last prostrate exam. ‘Uh, never’ I stammered and, not sensing my sudden anxiety, she asked me when I’d had my last colonoscopy.

‘Wait,’ I said, ‘I’m not old enough to need those things done, am I?’

‘Just about’ she replied.

‘In that case can we go back to the depression question?’

Ten days, a copay and 3 double-billing mistakes later I went to the dermatologist, clutching my referral like a winning lotto ticket.

 

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When I last went to the dermatologist in 1994 as a puberty-stricken middle schooler, the dermatologist’s office was one step above the guy who showed up at gym class and told you to turn your head and cough. Now, it’s like something from the Capital in the Hunger Games.

I walked into the steel and glass, Steve Jobs-like office where a receptionist with impossibly purple hair and a dress made of feathered, bedazzled boas handed me paperwork on a clipboard and told me to have a seat.

‘All I Need for Christmas’ was playing overheard on the stereo while a flatscreen on the adjacent wall advertised the dermatologists’ many services to do away with age, imperfection and just garden variety ugliness. A slide advertising the office’s newest service, eyebrow implants, slid horizontally across the plasma screen.

Judging from the model’s face on the screen, eyebrow implants are a procedure designed to give septuagenerian realtors Alex Trebeck mustaches above their eyes.

The next slide was a photo of the office itself along with its staff, centered above a cursive catchphrase. Their mission statement.

“Feel as perfect on the outside as you do on the inside.”

And as I started to fill out the paperwork, I wondered what sort of psychotic person came up with a slogan like that. I mean- if the goal is to appear on the outside how I normally feel about myself on the inside, then I’m already as ugly as I need to be.

Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ started to play as a door opened and a nurse, who looked a little like the supermodel Elizabeth Hurley, called for Mr. Michelle. Liz led me through a maze of hallways to a room so antiseptically bright I half-expected to be greeted by the Giver.

Inside the exam room, Liz handed me a hospital gown and instructed me to take off all my clothes and promised that the doctor would be in in a few minutes.

All my clothes?’ I begged for clarification.

‘Yep, even your underpants’ she said.

For some reason Liz Hurley using the word ‘underpants’ on me made me feel like a 5 year old boy whose mother makes him follow her into the ladies’ room.

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She closed the door gently behind her as I unfolded the baby blue gown.

Now, I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals, but I’ve never been a patient before and most of the patients I do see are underneath sheets and blankets.

Now that I held my own hospital gown in hand, I discovered that the correct way to wear one it is not as self-evident as you might think.

Are you supposed to wear it open in the back, like a cowboy’s chaps? Or should you wear it open in the front, like a bathrobe? Or maybe, I pondered, you should take your particular ailment as a guide?

Since my mole- the cause for my visit- was on the front of my body, I reasoned, I decided upon the latter ‘style.’

So there I sat, like The Dude in The Big Lebowski except I didn’t have a White Russian in hand.

And, I was naked.

If I was unsure about the correct way to wear the gown, I got my answer when the doctor knocked, entered, and immediately snorted and said ‘Oh my.’

‘I wasn’t sure…’ I started to explain, but he waved me off and said ‘It’s okay, not a problem. You won’t have it on for long anyway.’ Words that proved to be more auspicious than temporal.

‘Are you cold?’ he asked, looking at me. ‘We can turn up the heat.’

‘No, I’m fine,’ I said, my cheeks heating the room a degree or 20.

The doctor sat down on a round stool in front of a black computer and I proceeded to give him my professional diagnosis based on my degree from WebMD. He listened and rolled his eyes only once when I told him my suspicions of also having MS and when I finished said ‘Let’s have a look.’

So I showed him my mole, which- I’ll point out- was very easy to do since I was sporting the gown like a smoking jacket.

He looked at it for a few moments, looked at it through a magnifying glass for a few moments more and then, just as Rod Stewart started to sing ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’ the doctor said ‘I don’t think there’s anything to worry about. The hairs growing out of it make it look worse than it is.’

Relieved, I started to get up to get ready to go, but the doctor said: ‘Not so fast. While you’re here, we should probably do a full body scan.’

‘We?’ I wondered to myself as he left and returned a moment later with Liz Hurley, who- I noticed- struggled to suppress a giggle when she saw me in the gown.

With Liz gawking on, he proceeded to peel back my gown like it was cellophane on a pound of ground beef, which is probably a good analogy because there’s nothing quite like being naked, perched on top of butcher paper, and clutching your bait and tackle to make you feel like a piece of meat- that grayish, 50% off, sell-by-today-kind-of-meat.

The date-rapey Christmas song ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ started to play, which seemed appropriate since they then both started to bend me in impossible positions as though I was a yoga instructor or Anthony Wiener on the phone.

Bending and contorting me, they both picked over my every freckle and blemish like we were a family of lice-ridden Mandrills.

‘Anything suspicious down there?’ he asked ominously.

‘I hope to God not’ I said, but apparently invoking the deity did not provide sufficient medical certainty for him, because he took his examination south, which was when he decided- for some reason- to ask me what I did for a living.

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Normally when strangers ask me my profession, I lie and tell them I’m an architect. It helps avoid the awkward and endless conversations that the word ‘clergy’ can conjure.

But with no clothes on and even less dignity, there seemed to be little reason to pretend.

‘I’m a minister’ I said.

‘Really? What tradition? You’re obviously not a rabbi’ he said with a wink.

‘I’m a Methodist minister’ I said.

‘My grandmother was a Methodist’ he muttered.

Maybe it was because this was about the last position I wanted someone associating their grandma with me or maybe it was because the whole situation was so impossibly awkward, but once I started talking I found I couldn’t stop. You’d be amazed how interesting you can make denominational distinctions sound when you’re as in the buff as Wilfred Brimley in Cocoon and being pawed over like a 4-H cow.

John (Cougar) Mellencamp’s ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa’ came on as the doctor finished and said in a measured tone: ‘You do have some moles on your back that concern me.’

Then he ordered me to sit back down and lean forward as far as I could, which I did, clutching the last corner of my gown against my loins.

The doctor took a black sharpie and drew circles on my back, which struck me in the moment as not very scientific; meanwhile, Liz Hurley grabbed a digital camera off the supply counter.

Under normal circumstances, the combination of supermodel, a nurse’s outfit and a digital camera would pique my interest, but somehow I knew what was next.

She told me to lean forward again so she could snap some close-ups of my back, which she did with slow, shaming deliberation. Then, I can only assume to degrade me further, she actually showed me the close-ups of my back.

Now it was my turn to throw up a little in my mouth.

‘That’s what I look like from behind? It’s like a flesh-colored Rorschach test. I should call my wife and tell her I love her’ I said to no one in particular.

She laughed and said: ‘The images are magnified so don’t worry. Trust me, everyone appears kind of ugly and gross when you get up that close for a look.’

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‘And that’s not even the ugliest part about me’ I said.

She frowned. ‘Do you think there’s something we missed?’

‘No, no, you were thorough all right’ I said, ‘I was just thinking of something else- my soul.’

‘I guess that’s your speciality, huh Father?’ Liz laughed.

The doctor laughed too.

They thought I was joking. They both thought I was joking.

James Taylor was finishing his rendition of ‘Lo, How a Rose Ere Blooming,’ that line that goes ‘…true man, yet very God, from sin and death he saves, and lightens every load’- he was singing that line as I sat on the butcher paper and watched as Liz loaded the snapshots of me onto the black computer.

Watching each unflattering image first pixilate then load on to the screen in front of me, I thought again of that cursive catchphrase in the lobby and what rubbish it was: “Feel as perfect on the outside as you do on the inside.”

Because if you could get close up- all over- to me, not just looked at my skin but lived in my skin, lived my life- and not just in my shoes but in my flesh- then you could come up with a lot more ugly, indicting pictures of me than a hairy mole.

Because the cold, incarnate truth is, I’m even more pockmarked and blemished on the inside than I will ever appear on the outside.

On the inside-

I’m impatient and petty. I’m judgmental and a liar. I’m angry and insecure and fearful and unforgiving and…and I’m just a normal guy.

The cold, incarnate truth is- if you stripped me all the way down, not just of my clothes but of my pretense and prevarications, stripped off the costumes I wear and the roles I play right down to my soul, then you’d see how unsightly I really am.

And really, that was what was so unbearable about baring it all in that exam room. It reminded me how seldom I allow myself to be made vulnerable.

What being exposed exposed was just how much I try to cover up my true self. What being revealed revealed was how often I hide behind masks and manipulations, how often I fail to be authentic because I’m afraid of failure, how seldom I’m fully, genuinely me with others because I’m convinced there’s a whole lot of me I don’t think is worth sharing.

So I pretend.

I act like everything’s alright when it’s not. I pretend me and mine are happy when maybe we’re not. I act like I’ve got my shit together even when my shit’s falling apart all around me. I project strength when I feel weak, faith when I feel doubt, and I wear other people’s projections of me like masks.

I don’t keep it real.

I pretend. I play-act. I hide.

And so do you.

And since we’re baring it all, we might as well go full monty: the truth is we feel the need to hide and pretend and put on a good face more at Christmas than any other time of the year.

Which is odd.

Because when it comes to Christmas, we don’t just believe that God takes flesh. We don’t just believe that God puts on skin. We don’t just believe that God puts on a body. And we don’t just believe that God puts on Jesus’ body.

No, we believe that, at Christmas, God assumes- puts on, takes on- our humanity.

All of it. Every bit. Of every one of us.

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On the stereo Aretha Franklin belted out ‘Hail, hail the Word made flesh, the Babe, the Son of Mary’ from the second verse of ‘What Child as This.’ As Aretha sang and Liz finished up with my snapshots, the doctor gave me a patently false promise about not feeling a thing just before he started to dig out my first mole with the finesse of a mobbed-up Italian barber from North Jersey.

‘St. Gregory!’ I said out loud, mostly to myself.

‘Sorry,’ the doctor apologized, ‘maybe it’s not numb enough.’

He thought it was a curse- St Gregory. He thought I was referring to the pain in my skin.

But it wasn’t a curse. I wasn’t referring to the pain.

Hearing Aretha overheard and seeing my snapshots on the computer screen and thinking of my shame that morning and every unsightly truth it brought to mind, I thought of St. Gregory.

Gregory of Nazainzus.

The 4th century Church Father and mystic who taught that what it means to say ‘God was in Christ,’ as Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians, is to say that all of our humanity is in the God who was in Christ.

All our humanity. Every bit of every one of us.

It has to be.

Otherwise, as Gregory put it, ‘that which is not assumed is not healed.’ Those parts of humanity not taken on by God in Christ are not healed. Those embarrassing parts, those imperfect parts, those shameful and fearful and broken parts of us- if it’s true that Christ comes to save all then all those parts of us are in him; otherwise, they’re not healed.

Every bit of every one of us is in Him, Gregory says.

So there’s no need to hide. There’s no to pretend. There’s no need for shame or masks. We can give every embarrassing bit of our selves over to him because it’s already in him.

We’re not perfect on the outside and we don’t need to pretend that we are on the inside because every part of us is in him already. Says Gregory.

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With the gentleness of a cycloptic, differently-abled butcher, the doctor removed the rest of my blemishes and finished up by saying ‘You should come back in a year so we can do this again.’

‘I can’t wait’ I said as I started unfolding my street clothes.

Dressed, with my back looking like Clint Eastwood’s in Pale Rider, I found my way back to the lobby.

Someone, I’m not sure who, was on the stereo singing “Cast out our sins and enter in, Be born in us today.”

O’ Little Town of Bethlehem.

The plasma screen on the lobby wall was back to flashing their mission statement: “Feel as perfect on the outside as you do on the inside.” Accompanied by phony photos of people who pretended to feel both.

And, as I left, I said a little ‘Thanks be to God’ to myself that that is not our Gospel.

 

 

rp_Holy-Spirit-1024x68211.jpgThis weekend I concluded our Holy Spirit series with a sermon on the fruit of the Spirit as Paul outlines it in Galatians 5. The fruit of the Spirit is, without question, my least favorite scripture.

You can listen to the sermon here below or download it in iTunes here.

Much of the text you see below was left unspoken, allowing the slides on the screen behind me to carry the message.

     

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.’ 

My first thought whenever I read this list of ingredients for a genuine Holy Spirit-made Christian: ‘Crap. I’m screwed.’

It’s true.

Thank God ‘truthfulness’ isn’t on the list because then I’d have to be honest with you. I’d have to own up to the fact that not even my own mother would use 8 of those 9 attributes to describe me.

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? That’s not me. I’m not that person.

I’ve been a Christian- or at least I was thought I was- for 20 years. I have 2 theology degrees. I have thousands of books on Christianity in my office. I know several psalms by heart, and I can recite John 13 from memory- in Greek.

But if this is what a genuine, Holy Spirit-filled Christian looks like, I’m screwed.

 

I mean, I’ve got ‘love’ down, I guess.

I love my kids.

I tell my wife I love her, and sometimes I show her it’s true.

I tell myself I love God and that I even comprehend what that means.

I’m good at blogging about how we should love our enemies, but I’m not even sure if ‘Chase’ is my neighbor’s first name or last.

So, I’ve got ‘love’ down. 1 out of 9.

     But if this list is what the Spirit is supposed to yield in us, if this is the Holy Spirit harvest in someone who’s genuinely following Jesus, then I’m screwed.

The Holy Spirit’s work on me has been slower than beltway construction.

20 years and I’m 1 for 9.

I hate this list. I hate this scripture passage.

 

Paul, who wrote this scripture passage, had only been a Christian for about 10 years when he wrote it. Less than half the time I’ve been pretending to be a Christian.

 

Paul! A Pharisee who stood idly by while one of the apostles, Stephen, was tortured to death. I may be an SOB but I’ve never offered to hold the rocks for a lynch mob.

Paul did, but apparently the Holy Spirit’s work in him was just so awesome that in 10 years he scored 9 for 9 on this list.

I hate him too.

 

Maybe it’s just me.

Maybe I’m Holy Spirit resistant, Pentecost flame retardant.

Maybe you read this list of what the Spirit’s supposed to yield in you, and you think ‘Sure, I’ve got those. That’s me.’

 

If so, I hate you too.

It’s not as if I don’t try.

I wake up every morning with every intention of being patient and kind and all the rest. But then, after I wake up, I’ve got to deal with- you know- actual people. And a lot of those are church people so it’s doubly hard and it’s in no time that my love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control all deteriorate faster than a Roger Goodell press conference.

This list- it isn’t me.

If this, 1-9, is what a genuine Holy Spirit-filled person looks like, I don’t measure up.

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Last Sunday night we took the boys to the Jack White concert at Merriweather Pavilion. And watching my kids dance and clap along to the blues filled me with joy, absolute joy. And knowing I had to preach on this text this coming Sunday I thought to myself ‘Alright, not bad, 2 out of 9, making progress.’

But then I remembered how we got in to the concert in the first place.

You see, I’d gotten the tickets back in May. When they arrived in the mail, I stuck them in the desk drawer with the bills and, like the bills, forgot all about them until Thursday when I couldn’t find them. Anywhere.

And so what did I do?

I called Ticketfly and I said to the customer service lady: ‘Yes, I ordered tickets for this Sunday’s Jack White concert back in May for my little boy’s birthday and I’d forgotten all about it but I just realized those tickets never came in the mail. They must’ve gotten lost. In the mail.’

So that night at the Jack White concert my Facebook status looked like this: #whitelieformysonshappiness.

But my list, my Holy Spirit inventory, looked like this: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

 

And that Monday I was at Safeway in the Express Line, the Express Line, the 10 Items or Less Line- 10 Items, or Less, Line.

I was in line behind this old blue-haired woman who had 28 items in her cart. 28. I know because she was moving so slow I had time to count the 28 items in her cart at least 28 times while we stood in the 10 items or less aisle.

But I didn’t say anything. I didn’t sigh out loud or point to the Express Line sign that she should’ve been able to see since it was nearly as big as her perm. I didn’t point out that calling hers an express purchase was like saying water-boarding is not torture.

No, I didn’t complain.

I didn’t gripe that I had places to go and people to see. And I didn’t complain when she pulled out a stack of wrinkled, mostly expired coupons to try to haggle the price down.

No, I did good. Jesusy good.

But then when it came time to pay, the old lady reached in to a purse the size of El Salvador and after searching in it for…oh, I don’t know…forever…what did she pull out?

That’s right: a checkbook.

It was big and fat and had like 8 rubber bands wrapped around it and old deposit slips sticking out everywhere.

And after she then searched for her ‘favorite pen’ she filled the check out like she was signing a Middle East Peace Treaty and then she carefully tore the check out of the checkbook and then she marked the transaction down in her checkbook register with crossword puzzle care and then- finally- she handed the check to the teenager working the cash register, the teenager who had clearly never seen nor processed a check in his life.

“Oh my God! You should just keep a goat in that purse because the barter system would be a quicker way to pay!”

I thought I’d said to myself.

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

And then on Tuesday some jerk pastor somewhere in the country left this comment about my last sermon on a clergy Facebook Page: ‘I hope you understand the Holy Spirit better than you [don’t] understand prayer…for your congregation’s sake.’

My thoughtful reply to this jerk pastor has since been removed by the webmaster, but suffice it to say:

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

And on Wednesday my son Gabriel had his first baseball game of the season. I’m managing his team this year. This is the first time I’ve ever managed a little league team before so I didn’t know what that really means is that I’m managing the little leaguers’ parents. Especially the dads.

So there we were, playing our first game. It’s the first inning. We give up 4 runs and one of the dads decides to come up to me and ask when I’m going to make ‘defensive adjustments’ because, he says, his son’s ‘exceptional skills are being wasted in right field.’

I was about halfway through my measured reply to him before I realized all the players on the field and all the parents on the sidelines were staring at me. Or listening to me is more like it.

#blesshisheart

 Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control 

I hate this list.

 

On Thursday night, I led a prayer vigil in Aldersgate’s sanctuary for Hannah Graham, the missing UVA student who is/was a part of our Aldersgate community.

And during the service I led a long litany prayer emphasizing the goodness and sovereignty of God even as- in my head and in my heart- I was questioning those very things.

Questioning God’s goodness in a world like ours. Second-guessing God’s wisdom for making our world the way he made it.

And during the silent prayer time and the lighting of the candles I listened to the hundreds of people gathered there, crying and sniffling and pleading softly under their breath.

And I couldn’t utter a single prayer, silent or otherwise, because really what I wanted to say to God was ‘@#*& *&$ God! Where the #$%^ are you?!’

As Dennis offered the candle-lit benediction that night, I looked like this:

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

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Thank God ‘truthfulness’ isn’t on this list, because then I’d have to confess how much I hate this fruit of the Spirit passage.

Because if this is what a real Spirit-filled Christian looks like, then all this picture does is remind me of what I’m not, what I’m lacking, how inadequate and imperfect and incomplete I am.

This passage is like a glossy, air-brushed, cover-shoot picture of the Christian that Paul in advertising thinks I should be instead of the blotchy, blemished, and thoroughly ordinary Christian that I am.

I hate this passage.

 I hate this fruit of the Spirit passage because, intentionally or not, the message it conveys is no different than the message we see and hear 3,000 times a day:

 You’re not good enough.

This passage- it’s like that Ciallis commercial. You know, the one where the husband and wife are relaxing in separate claw-footed bathtubs- outdoors- enjoying a breath-taking view and then the woman suggestively brushes the man on his hand.

Because, you know, scenes like that unfold all the time.

Translation: Your marriage isn’t passionate enough.

This passage- it’s like those Dos Equis commericals featuring the world’s most interesting man and the gorgeous women who want to be with him and the men who want to be him, which of course is awesome until you pop the top on a bottle and no fawning beauties or admiring men appear.

Translation: You’re not really all that interesting.

Just as you already suspected.

 

This fruit of the Spirit passage- it’s like those iPhone 6 commercials that all but say the iPhone 5 you bought 4 weeks ago makes you an outdated, antiquated, hopelessly uncool loser.

I hate this passage because all I hear in it is the same message I hear everywhere else: I’m not good enough.

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

     When it comes to lists, I score a lot better on that other list, the one Paul gives just before this list of fruit:

  • Fornication: Game of Thrones, binge-watching, 5/14
  • Moral Corruption: Ordained in the UMC, 6/07
  • Doing Whatever Feels Good: ask grandmother, ‘you’ll go blind…’
  • Idolatry: M-F, Weekly
  • Drug Use: 2nd Hand, Jack White Concert, 9/14
  • Casting Spells: Renaissance Faire, 10/13
  • Hate: Joel Osteen Ministries
  • Fighting: Bishop’s Cabinet re: Guatemala Toilet Project
  • Obsession: Baseball
  • Losing Temper: Joel Osteen Ministries
  • Oppositional: see: personality, Jason
  • Selfishness: ask: Ali, wife of Jason
  • Jealousy: Joel Osteen Ministries
  • Conflict: Starbucks Barista who doesn’t know how to make an Americano, 9/26/14
  • Drunkenness: college, ’96-’00
  • Partying: see above (and graduate school ’00-’03… and last Saturday)

When it comes to this list, the life of the flesh list, I’m 16 for 16, 24/7, 365 days a year.

But I hate this fruit of the Spirit list.

20 years in and most days I’m just 1 for 9. It’s just another reminder of the same message we see and hear a thousand times a day. #youarenotgoodenough

Paul, here in Galatians, is like that Mom I’m friends with on Facebook. Every day- every day- she posts pictures of her kids’ perfect, healthy, nutritious, all-organic, bento-boxed school lunches.

     #perfectparent

Meanwhile I send my kids to school with leftover gambling money where they buy smiley fries and pancakes cooked in plastic bags.

     #baddad

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

     #badchristian

#godsdisappointedinyou

 

If this list is an advertisement for what being a Christian is like, if it’s like a commercial for who you will be on Jesus, then like all advertisements it’s too good to be true.

Because, trust me, I know way more Christians than you and, most days, even the best ones are lucky to go 2 for 3. It’s too good to be true.

Actually, it’s worse than too good to be true.

Because where it says ‘there is no law against such things’ in verse 23, in the Greek it actually says ‘there is no shortage of such things.’

As in, the Holy Spirit’s cultivating kindness and patience and faithfulness and joy all over the place- there’s no shortage of such things- so what’s the problem with you? 1/9 faux Christian?

I hate to break it to you, but it’s even worse than that because the word Paul uses for ‘fruit’ in Greek is singular.

As in, it’s all one gift: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

It’s all one gift.

You either have all of them or you have none of them. And if you think you have one of them, you actually have not one of them.

They all go together.

Require one another.

The fruit of the Spirit- it’s singular.

But maybe that’s not bad news after all.

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That Thursday night I led the long litany prayer affirming God’s goodness and wisdom even as the words stuck in my throat and rang false in my heart.

Sitting there in the pew, doubting God’s goodness and wisdom, my mind wandered to the one thing I could be certain of- my own kids and my love for them.

1. Love

After Dennis offered a candle-lit benediction, I stood in the sanctuary aisle and I noticed a man sitting in the middle of a pew behind me, an ordinarily gruff man just sitting there staring straight ahead as the people on either end of his pew leaned over and furiously whispered their prayers.

The man in the middle- he just sat there calmly.

He didn’t say excuse me. He didn’t try to scootch past them. He didn’t sigh like he was in a hurry. He just waited for them. For them. For as long as they needed.

2. Patience

And after the service as the crowd thinned out I watched as some of the youth, touched by Hannah’s disappearance in a way I can’t fathom, gathered around the altar rail together and got on their knees and prayed. Even as the guy in the collar *me* was having a hard time praying at all.

3. Faithfulness

And in the sanctuary aisle I saw our new youth director hug kids he barely knows and ask them as though he’d known them forever how they were doing.

4.Gentleness

And in the lobby I watched as a mom, whose own daughter is Hannah’s best friend, held back tears and anger as a nosy reporter peppered people with questions.

5. Self-Control

And after the reporter went her way, I stood next to the mom and listened as other parents, one by one, came up to her and asked her to relay a message to Hannah’s parents: ‘Tell them if there’s anything we can do for them…’

6. Kindness

7. Goodness

And eventually those offers of help turned to reminiscing of each other’s children and the friendships that bound them.

8. Joy

As I walked out to my car that night another mother, her car parked next to mine, spoke about ‘perspective’ and, as she fumbled for her keys, she mentioned to me that she felt like she should call her own daughter with whom she hadn’t spoken in a long, long time.

9. Peace

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          “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.’ 

It’s singular.

It’s all one gift, there’s not one without the other.

It’s all one gift, and- Paul says- there’s no shortage of such things. The Spirit’s fruit is everywhere if you but look.

But where Paul wants you to look is not to the individual believer but to the Body.

 

You see if this list is a description of what a genuine Holy Spirit-filled believer looks like- if it’s like an advertisement for what being a Christian is like, then like all advertisements it’s too good to be true.

 

Because, let’s face it, even the best of you score barely better than 1/9 me.

Some of you are not patient or gentle. Some of us are not consistently kind or self-controlled. I know I’m not always faithful and I know some of you struggle with loving the people in your lives.

Some of you have no peace and for good reason. Ditto when it comes to joy.

 

If this list is meant to be a commercial for who you will be on Jesus then like all commercials it’s too good to be true.

     But this list, this letter- it’s not written to you.

It’s not a promise meant for you.

     It’s written to us. It’s a promise for us.

And that makes it completely different than the message we hear 3,000 times a day.

Because the promise, the incredibly good but still believable news- the gospel- behind this list is that the Holy Spirit can take all you impatient but good people and all you joyful but out of control people and all you people with great faith and kindness but little peace and all of you who love God but have a hard time loving others- the promise is that the Holy Spirit can take 1 for 9 people like you and put you into a community that we call Church and somehow, by the grace of God, you all together- we- can look like Jesus.

This list, this letter, it’s not written to you. It’s meant for us.

And that means the proper reaction to this fruit of the Spirt list is not:

         “Crap, I’m screwed.’

It’s:

     “Crap [turn to the person sitting next to you] I need you.”

And you won’t ever hear a message like that on TV.

Making Love…a Verb

Jason Micheli —  July 28, 2014 — 3 Comments

10494562_881661191848427_6390847377076382822_nOne of the gifts that comes with serving in one congregation for an extended period of time is watching kids whom I’ve baptized grown in to youth and seeing youth become adults, going off into the world and, sometimes, getting married.

Sometimes to each other.

This weekend I had the honor of performing the wedding ceremony for two special people, Will Gerig and Becca McGraw. I met them when they were both youth in the youth band at church, shortly before they started dating.

Here’s the wedding sermon I wrote for them.

The texts were selections from the Song of Songs and Colossians 3.12-17.

Will and Becca,

Let’s just say I can’t believe the kids I knew in the youth band are now old enough to get married.

And let’s just say I can’t believe I’m old enough to be marrying the kids I knew in the youth band. I’m old enough to have been at this a while.

For example, I’ve done a lot of weddings.

By my best guesstimate it’s around 70 times- 70 times that I’ve stood in sanctuaries like this and announced ‘Dearly Beloved.’

By my best guesstimate it’s around 63 times- 63 times I’ve had to suffer through 1 Corinthians 13 (‘Love is patient, love is kind…’) as the scripture passage despite registering my strenuous objections with the bride and groom.

By own best guesstimate it’s around 3 times- 3 times my notes have blown away with the breeze at an outdoor wedding, which makes it 3 times that I’ve lost my train of thought and called either the bride or the groom by the wrong name.

2 times- by my guesstimate that’s how many times the bride has been so late to her wedding I started to seriously wonder if she’d show at all.

     And 1 time- 1 time I’ve had to stand up front with a fake smile plastered on my face as a 12 year old boy, whose voice is newly in the throes of puberty, tries to make Bill Withers’ ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ sound worshipful.

     God I hope that remains the only time.

I’ve done a lot of weddings.

By my best guesstimate about a baker’s dozen of those occasions have been for close friends of mine, friends from in and out of the congregation, people I know pretty well.

I even presided at my college roommate’s wedding in the chapel at UVA, which I’m guessing Will must’ve vetoed as a location for your own wedding since he still hasn’t come to grips with Virginia Tech’s massive inferiority in all things.

I’ve done a lot of weddings and many of those weddings were for people I knew pretty well.

But to the best of my memory, my best guesstimate is that out of all those weddings- all those brides and grooms, all those rings and ‘for richer for poorers’- I haven’t known any of those couples as long as I’ve known the two of you.

Nearly 10 years. Will you were 8 and Becca was 7 if I remember correctly.

I remember one of my first conversations with Becca. She was sitting on the parking slab outside the youth wing here and alluded to a crush she had on some boy whom she chose not to name.

And I remember hoping, whoever he was, that he was a nice guy because Becca seemed to be the sort who deserved a nice guy.

And I remember Will coming up to me, the new pastor, to introduce himself. I remember thinking Will was kind of corny and a little bit shy but thoroughly sincere; in other words, he was completely different back then.

I remember treading bacteria-infested water in Belize with Becca as she gave me advice on what makes for a good confirmation class and what makes for a bad one.

I remember the many worship services where, after it was done, Will would come up  to me and give me his deadpan assessment of the sermon and I would leave having no idea whether he was being sarcastic or not.

I’ve done a lot of weddings and some for folks I knew pretty well but none for a couple I’ve known as long as I’ve known you.

I mean, out of all those 73 or so grooms Will is the only one who has ever patiently waited inside my tent simply to scare the pants off of my wife.

And of all the photos I have on Facebook from mission teams in Guatemala, Will is the only one to pretend to behead me with a machete from behind.

Of all the weddings and all the couples, you two are the only ones I’ve spent a week with at a monastery in France, singing and praying and hiking and posing awkwardly for photos as all Europeans do.

I remember whispering to my wife in our tent one of those nights at the monastery, both of us thinking you two seemed perfect for each other, that even then your relationship was healthier than most people who’ve been married their whole lives.

And I remember that last night in France as we slept on the airport floor awaiting our flight and you two lay there holding hands when you thought no one else was awake or looking.

I’ve known you guys a long time.

Long enough to know how you two feel about each other.

Long enough to know how you two feel today.

Long enough for me to feel nearly as happy and ecstatic and joyous as you feel.

But then, today at least, that begs a question:

If love is a feeling, how in the world can you promise to love someone forever?

     If love is a feeling, how can you two promise that to each other forever?

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     The bride in the Song of Songs says that ‘love is as strong as death’ as ‘unyielding as the grave.’

She sings, in fact, that ‘many waters cannot quench love’ nor ‘rivers wash it away.’

Earlier in the song she confesses that her groom’s love for her has the power to make her beautiful and lovely.

But again- there’s the question: if love is just a feeling how can she describe it like that?

 Of all the things in our lives, our feelings are the part of us we have the least control over.

You can’t promise to feel a certain feeling every day for the rest of your life.

If love is a feeling, then it’s no wonder the odds are better than even that it won’t last.

Amen.

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Just kidding.

But, it gets worse. When you turn to the New Testament, love isn’t just something you promise to another. It’s something you’re commanded to give another.

When a rich lawyer asks Jesus for the key to it all, Jesus says: ‘Love the Lord completely and love your neighbor as yourself.’

And the night before he dies, when Jesus washes his friends’ feet, he tells them: ‘I give you a new commandment: love one another just as I have loved you.’ And when the Apostle Paul writes to the Colossians he commands them to ‘bear with each other, forgive one another, put on love.’ And in a different letter Paul goes so far as to command husbands to love their wives and wives to love their husbands.

Those are all imperatives.

Jesus doesn’t say like your neighbor. Jesus doesn’t say you should love one another.

Paul doesn’t tell us to try to love and forgive one another.

They’re imperatives. They’re commands.

Here’s the thing.

     You can’t force a feeling. You can’t command an emotion.

     You can only command an action.

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In scripture, love is an action first and a feeling second.

Jesus and Paul take a word we use as a noun, and they make it a verb.

Which is the exact opposite of how the culture has taught us all to think about love.

We think of love as a noun, as a feeling, as something that happens to us, something we fall into (and out of).

The culture has so shaped us that that’s how we hear a scripture like the Song of Songs.

     The culture teaches us to think of love as a noun, which means then we think we must feel love in order to give it.

But that’s a recipe for a broken relationship. Because when you think you must feel love first in order to give it, then when you don’t feel love towards the other you stop offering them loving acts.

And of course the rub is the fewer loving actions you show someone else, the fewer loving feelings there will be between you.

In scripture, even in an erotic love poem like the Song of Songs, love is an action first and a feeling second.

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You know me well enough to know I’m trying to sound unromantic.

I know that its a feeling that sparks a relationship, but the basis for an enduring relationship, the basis for a relationship that can last a lifetime is making love…a verb.

Love is something you do- even when you don’t feel like it.

That’s how Jesus can command us to love our enemies. And you can ask any married person- the ability to love your enemy is often the necessary condition to love your spouse.

     Jesus can’t force us to feel a certain way about our enemies, but Jesus can command us to do concrete loving actions for our enemies knowing that those loving acts might eventually transform how we feel.

The key to having love as a noun in your life is making love a verb. That’s what ‘for better, for worse’ is all about.

Paul says: ‘Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience’ so that ‘the peace of Christ may rule in your hearts.’

     In other words, where you invest loving actions, loving feelings will follow.

You do it and then you feel it.

So, in your relationship you may not feel gentle but you act gentle.

You may not feel compassionate on a given day but, just as you would a child, you listen and show them compassion.

You may not feel patient and kind tomorrow evening but tomorrow evening what you do is muster up some patience and kindness.

You may not feel very forgiving the next time the two of you fight but forgiveness is exactly what you offer.

I’ve known you two longer than any of the 73 couples before you. I know how perfect you are for each other. I know how you make each of us better too.

But even the two of you- you can’t promise each other the feeling of love.

That’s not the covenant you make today.

     The covenant is that you promise the action of love every day.

     Love is something you do and today you promise to trust the doing, to trust the doing transform to transform your heart.

Again and again.

Day out and day in.

     That’s the promise.

And that kind of promise…

It doesn’t just take two people. It doesn’t require the perfect relationship.

It doesn’t take a feeling. It takes faith.

It takes faith, I think, because that kind of love?

That kind of love is exactly how Jesus loves us.

rev-charles-moore-327x388You may have missed it in the mainstream press.

Last week a retired United Methodist pastor in Texas set himself on fire in a shopping center parking lot.

Rev. Charles Moore intended his self-immolation as an act of social protest against the death penalty, homophobia and racism of both his denomination and his home-state.

Not only did Moore see his suicide as his destiny, he saw it as an unavoidable act of faithfulness- the place where his Gethsemane led.

Methodists, I think it’s fair to say, aren’t known being particularly exciting or taking up extraordinary means to make their point. Moore’s immolation, however, reminds Christians that the line between mysticism and mental anguish has always been a fine one.

While I certainly don’t want to make hay of another’s struggles of the soul, I do think it worthwhile pondering whether Moore’s self-immolation can be construed as faithful according to Christian grammar.

In letter he wrote in June, Rev. Moore drew an analogy between himself and the Protestant saint of the 20th century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“This decision to sacrifice myself was not impulsive: I have struggled all my life (especially the last several years) with what it means to take Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s insistence that Christ calls a person to come and die seriously. He was not advocating self-immolation, but others have found this to be the necessary deed, as I have myself for some time now: it has been a long Gethsemane, and excruciating to keep my plans from my wife and other members of our family.”

Of course, any student of history could point out the obvious distinction that renders such an analogy erroneous: Bonhoeffer didn’t commit suicide.

Bonhoeffer didn’t choose death or martyrdom.

Bonhoeffer chose a path of faithfulness he knew might well lead to his death.

The difference could not be greater nor could their appropriation of the cross be more divergent.

Self-immolation is (I hope is clear) an outlier but nonetheless it relies upon a certain logic of the cross that is quite mainstream: the belief that a greater good can come from suffering and death.

Such a belief consequently baptizes suffering and death as means towards greater aims for it reads the Cross as what God requires/desires in order for the transaction of redemption to be complete.

The myth of redemptive suffering/violence IS a myth.

To put it more clearly if more crudely only a penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement can lead to someone like Rev. Moore construing his own self-inflicted suffering as a divinely sanctioned means to a social justice end.

It’s a broad generalization but this IS a blog after all:

Rev. Moore’s logic of the Cross is no different than the understandings preached from pulpits on most Sundays and sung in nearly every 19th century hymn and contemporary CCM song.

Rev. Moore’s self-immolation reveals how destructive such interpretations of the Cross can prove.

My recent theo-crush, the late Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe once wrote: timothy-radcliffe

“Jesus teaches us two things.

First, he teaches that in order to be a human being we must love fully and without condition.

Second, he teaches us that if we do love this way, they’ll kill us.”

More ably put perhaps but this is the same point McCabe makes when he writes:

 “The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be crucified; what the Father wished is that Jesus should be human…And this is what Jesus sees as a command laid on him by his Father in heaven; the obedience of Jesus to his Father is to be totally, completely human.

Thus, Jesus was crucified because he was human not because the Father planned to have him killed for some greater cause.

We must always remember and never shy away from the fact that we crucified Jesus, not the Father. 

We have created a world that is characterized by suffering and death—by oppression, torture, and even crucifixion. We must not become confused on this point: God never causes suffering. God is always God for us, always for human flourishing, always for love.

Jesus was killed not because God wanted him to be killed but because we wanted him to be killed.” 

McCabe seeing Jesus as the truly human one is a point not altogether different from what Paul means in Romans 1 and 3 when he identifies Jesus as the Faithful One.

Because Jesus shows us what it means to be authentically, fully human, he also accordingly reveals to us what it means to be faithful. And what we see revealed by Jesus is not someone desiring death nor someone who sees violence as the means by which God chooses to redeem.

Rather in Jesus the Faithful One we see a lover of God who accepts- with no small amount of terror and regret- his death rather than resort to violence himself.

Without Easter, the Cross just is what Rome intended it to be: tragic.

And when we remember that the Cross is what we do to Jesus not what God does to Jesus we can see Rev. Moore’s act for what it so sadly is: suicide.

 

Untitled9-1024x682Here’s the sermon from Sunday. Continuing the summer series through Paul’s Letter to the Romans, the text was the critical pistis Christou passage in Romans 3.21-31.

You can listen to the sermon here below, in the widget on the sidebar or you can download it in iTunes by clicking here. For that matter, you can download the free Tamed Cynic mobile app here.

Like black coffee, I’m an acquired taste. I have a tendency to rub some people the wrong way- shocking I know.

In fact, almost 9 years ago to the day, one elderly curmudgeon- bless his heart- chewed me out and tore me a new one as he left worship.

That was my first Sunday at Aldersgate.

Since then his red-faced finger-pointing, clenched-teeth indictments and patronizing soliloquies went on to become an every sermon ritual.

Fortunately, I was able to dismiss his criticism, seeing as how this sweet saint of the Lord typically fell asleep after the opening prayer and was in no position to evaluate my effectiveness as a preacher.

And because I didn’t take his criticisms too much to heart, I was able to make light of them in my sermons.

About 7 years ago, I started using his gripes with me as a foil in some of my sermons. Since I couldn’t out him outright, reveal his name and his character, I instead adopted an anonymous, affectionate handle for him:

He Who Must Not Be Named.

     Sure, I admit it was my passive aggressive way of exacting revenge, to rebut from the pulpit all the gripes I’d had to grin and bear at the sanctuary doors. But it was also good for a laugh or two.

What goes around comes around.

But then it came around again to bite me in the ass.

Because about 2 years ago, someone set up an email address (HeMustNotBeNamed@gmail.com) and a Twitter handle: HeMustNotBeNamed and started sending me mocking emails and tweets from someone taking the name HeMustNotBeNamed.

His (yours?) tagline on Twitter reads: I taught @jasonmicheli everything I wanted him to know. I am here to expose the truth one blog post at a time.

     For example, last winter I tweeted out a preview of my sermon:

‘This weekend we will conclude our marriage sermon series by discussing the current marriage debate in the larger Church around homosexuality.’

And HeMustNotBeNamed tweeted:

‘@JasonMicheli I can’t wait for the children’s sermon.’

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In response to a promo for pub theology, HeMustNotBeNamed sent me this tweet:

‘@JasonMicheli if I come to #pubtheology will you buy me a butter beer?’

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And I know this has to be someone in the congregation, is because in January I received this tweet:  ‘@JasonMicheli nice red sweater this weekend. The Mr. Rogers look is good for you.’

 

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So… it has to be one of you.

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Just over a week ago, I published my 1000th post on my blog, and I pushed it out to social media with this line:

 

‘Thanks to Tony Jones for encouraging me to start the blog and trust that if I wrote stuff of substance, readers would come.’

And HeMustNotBeNamed replied: ‘@JasonMicheli this stuff makes me want to drink something of substance.’

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Then HeMustNotBeNamed continued: ‘@JasonMicheli I think you’re brilliant, but I also think you think so yourself.’

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Ignoring the put down, I tweeted to @HeMustNotBeNamed: ‘Thanks.’

 

But HeMustNotBeNamed continued: ‘@JasonMicheli But, at times, I’ve no idea what you’re talking about. Of course, that makes it no different than listening to you preach.’

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Wounded, I responded by tweeting: ‘@HeMustNotBeNamed So sorry you’re not able to understand me!’

Sounding like my mother-in-law, HeMustNotBeNamed replied: ‘@JasonMicheli I don’t think your deadpan humor really helps.’

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Which just begged for me to up the ante: ‘@HeMustNotBeNamed Deadpan humor?!’

HeMustNotBeNamed wondered: ‘@JasonMicheli Does @DennisPerry ever weary of your constant jokes at his expense?’

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Of course, a comment like that is ripe for another joke at Dennis’ expense so I tweeted back: ‘@HeMustNotBeNamed @DennisPerry is 65. Everything wearies him at this point.’  He didn’t find it funny, I guess, because HeMustNotBeNamed tweeted: ‘@JasonMicheli Your intellect IS your problem.

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‘@HeMustNotBeNamed What do you mean?’ I asked.

 

 

And HeMustNotBeNamed queried: Untitled15‘@JasonMicheli Why is the intellectual stuff necessary? Why can’t God just come out of the closet and reveal himself so there’d be no doubting?’

 

 

Like a good pastor I asked a clarifying question: Untitled13‘@HeMustNotBeNamed You want God to come out of the closet?’ He didn’t find it funny: ‘@JasonMicheli Haha. If our salvation depends on faith, why can’t God do a better job of convincing us?’

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Serious for once, I asked him: ‘@HeMustNotBeNamed What kind of convincing would you want?’  He answered: ‘@JasonMicheli Why can’t God write across the sky ‘Here’s your proof. Believe in me. Sincerely God.’ Everyone would be on their knees.’

Then he tweeted a sort of PS: ‘@JasonMicheli After all, no one doubts my existence and they don’t even speak my name.’

 

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If everything depends on faith- on our faith, on our faith in Jesus, then why doesn’t God make it easier to believe?

 

Whether HeMustNotBeNamed’s tweets and emails are meant to mock me or not, it’s a good question.

Maybe, even, it’s the best question.

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I received those tweets a little over a week ago.  And since then, a number of times I’ve sat down at my laptop and tried to sort through a good answer.

 

Parts of each those answers were good, but I wasn’t content with any of them.

 

Because I’m no good at the 140 characters or less stricture, I opted for email.

 

Untitled11     Those responses still are saved in the drafts folder of my mailbox. The first draft was from the following Saturday, June 28.

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@HeMustNotBeNamed,

 

Thanks for your question. Though, your comment about me seeming full of myself makes me wonder if your message was meant for @DennisPerry.

 

Despite what you might assume given my line of work, faith has never come easy for me. John Wesley told his pastors: ‘Preach faith until you have it.’

 

Sometimes I think I need to be a pastor in order to be a Christian. I need people- even satirical Tweeters like you- holding me accountable. I need the Sunday sermon deadline hanging over me to force me to work through what I believe.

 

That’s why I think the notion that you can be a Christian without participating in a church is BS.

 

I suppose this shows I’m sympathetic with your question but doesn’t really answer it.

 

Let me say this:

One of the abiding memories I carry around with me like a scar that’s smoothed over is being at the hospital a few years back with my arm around a mom as she held her son- my confirmation student- and prayed… to God…pleaded…for her son.

 

Who was already gone.

 

Hers was a desperate prayer, a kind of yearning. The sort of prayer from someone who’s wounded and has no where else to turn.

On the one hand, you could say a grieving mother praying for her little boy makes the whole question of belief even muddier: If there’s a God why should she be in such a position? I get that. Trust me, I get that.

 

Leave those questions aside for a moment because I think there’s a way of seeing that mother’s prayer as the absolute embodiment of faith.

All the good examples of faith in the Gospels are from people just like her.

They’re all people who don’t wait for proof. They just bare their wounds and desperation to Christ.

 

Most of the time we do the opposite. We wait to be convinced before we’re willing to lay ourselves bare to God. We’ve got it backwards from the way faith works in the Bible.

 

That mother in the hospital didn’t have the luxury of waiting for proof, but I wonder if any of us ever do.

 

I wonder if it’s not God that’s the problem.

I wonder if we make it hard on ourselves to have faith by our refusal to let go of control and admit we’re every bit as desperate as those people in scripture who come to Christ with their kids’ lives on the line.

Blessings,

Jason

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I never clicked send. It was a good response, a solid answer, but I didn’t face the question head-on.

 

According to my drafts folder, my second attempt came a couple of days later, on Tuesday, July 1.

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@HeMustNotBeNamed

 

I appreciate your willingness to push back on my thinking. Of course, thinking about God is challenging; however, your suggestion that I suffer from a lack of clarity makes me wonder if you’d meant to send these tweets to @DennisPerry.

 

I’ve always admired folks with unquestioning faith, but I’m not one of them.

 

I sometimes worry the unspoken assumption at church is that everyone’s faith is rock-solid firm when I know the faith of the person sitting next to you is just as likely to be hanging on by the thinnest of threads.

 

Remember all that Harold Camping hoopla a few years ago about the world ending on May 21?

 

A few days before that I was in Old Town walking down the sidewalk and on the corner near Banana Republic were four or five evangelists holding poster-board signs and passing out tracts.

 

I guess it sounds bad for a pastor to say but I hate evangelists. At least the ones who think fear is an appropriate medium to share the love of Christ.

 

According to them the world is going to end on May 21. I guess we’ll see if they’re right. I suppose if they are then you’ll finally have the proof you want.

 

I could tell they weren’t going to let me pass by without an encounter so when one of them tried to hand me a tract, I held up hands and said: ‘I’m a Buddhist.’

 

He gave me his spiel anyway about the end of the world and how ‘only the saved will survive.’

 

Since I was a Buddhist, I thought I should feign ignorance: ‘Saved? How do I get saved?’

 

‘By faith.’

 

‘How do I have faith?’

 

And he told me I needed to accept that I’m a sinner etc, etc.

 

Faith for him was really more like agreement.

 

I’ve spent 19 years learning how to have faith. It’s crazy to me that this evangelist thought that could all be sped up just by getting me to nod my head to a list of propositions.

 

Faith is something you live into, not agree to.

 

Maybe because I’ve had those evangelists on my mind, but I guess I’d say that, just like the scribes and the Pharisees in the Gospels, I think sometimes its religious people themselves who make faith hard for others.

They make it sound painless, quick and rational.

 

It isn’t any of those things.

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Blessings, I wrote. But I didn’t click send that time either. It was a passable way to answer the question. I’d said what faith isn’t, but I hadn’t said what it is.

I tried again on June 7.

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@HeMustNotBeNamed

 

Thanks for sharing your struggles with me. I assume you were only kidding about @DennisPerry getting wearied by me, but- to be honest- @DennisPerry is getting to that age where it’s not really funny anymore to make age jokes.

He’s now so old he deserves sympathy not sarcasm.

 

Actually, knowing @DennisPerry’s workload, it’s difficult for me to imagine how Dennis could be weary from anything.

 

@HeMustNotBeNamed, whomever you are, I’ve been putting off my reply.

 

I couldn’t come up with a good definition for faith, and without that there’s not a really good way to answer you.

 

I think I finally figured out how I want to put it.

 

On Monday morning I spoke to a woman in the community. Her neighbor gave her my number. She and her husband moved here from the West Coast a little less than a year ago.

 

Right after they moved in to their new house, they miscarried their first child.

Two days after the miscarriage they found out that her husband had a rare and advanced form of leukemia.

 

He’s dying and there’s nothing anyone can do.

As she put it to me: ‘He has his bad days and he has God-awful days.’

 

And then she asked if I’d come over and pray with them some time.

Before the End.

 

That wasn’t what I was expecting to hear from her- to pray. To God.

 

I probably looked like I was gawking at her, but to be honest I was marveling. How could she pray? Or have faith at all?

Because if faith was just ‘belief’ there’s no way it could survive what she and her husband were going through.

 

Here’s what I realized again on Monday. Faith is more like trust.

The sort of trust capable of saying to God: I don’t understand you; it seems you’re breaking your word to me; still I trust you; I trust you because it’s you, because it’s you and me, even though my heart is breaking. I trust you.

 

Faith. Is. Trust.

 

This is what it means to have a personal relationship with God, a term I normally don’t like because it sounds exclusionary and sentimental.

 

A personal relationship with God means you and God are together through thick and thin…

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I never finished that reply. Even though I’d figured out how to say what faith is, I still hadn’t gotten behind the ‘why’ of the question. I hadn’t gotten at the problem behind so many of our problems with faith.

 

So I tried again, on Friday the 4th.

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@HeMustNotBeNamed

 

Snark aside, thank you for your question. I’m embarrassed its taken so long to respond. Even @DennisPerry can type faster than this. Well, not really.

 

I could’ve replied much quicker had I dispensed the standard pastor answers: faith is hard because we’re fallen, sinful creatures.

 

God doesn’t make faith easy or obvious for us because God needs to know if we trust him.

 

Faith is hard because it’s a gift from God, some have it.

 

And some don’t.

 

The problem with the standard pastor answers on faith is the same problem as the standard questions we ask about faith.

 

In both cases we assume that when it comes to God and how God regards us it’s our faith in Jesus that’s important, that’s operative.

 

The standard pastor answers and the conventional questions both assume that it’s our faith in Jesus Christ that justifies us, that makes us right with God.

 

The problem though is that that’s NOT how St. Paul speaks of faith.

 

In Romans 3, probably the most important passage in the New Testament about faith, Paul uses two words: Pistis and Christou.

 

The word ‘pistis’ is the Greek word that gets translated as ‘faith.’

 

But the word ‘pistis’ doesn’t mean ‘rational assent’ or ‘belief’’ and certainly not ‘a feeling in your heart.’

 

It means ‘trusting obedience,’ and so the better way to translate the word ‘pistis’ isn’t with the word ‘faith’ but with the word ‘faithfulness.’ 

 

And the word ‘Christou.’

Obviously that’s the word for Christ or Messiah.

Christou is in the Genitive Case.

 

And the best way to translate it is not ‘in Christ’

The best way to translate it ‘of Christ.’

 

When you read Romans 3, you realize Paul speaks of faith in a way that’s very different from how we think of it in our questions and answers.

 

Paul’s not saying we are justified by our faith in Christ. 

     He’s saying it is the faithfulness of Christ that justifies you. 

For Paul, it’s the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah that justifies us.

It’s Christ’s faithfulness that makes us right with God.

It’s Jesus’ trusting obedience, not just on the cross but all the way up to it, from Galilee to Golgotha, that zeroes out the sin in our ledgers.

 

For Paul, Christ’s faithfulness isn’t just an example of something. It’s effective for something. It changes something between God and us, perfectly and permanently. Just like Jesus said it did when he said: ‘It is accomplished.’

 

That’s why, for Paul, any of our attempts to justify ourselves are absurd. Of course they are- because he’s already justified us.

 

What motivates so many of our questions and struggles about faith is the assumption that our justification before God is like a conditional if/then statement: If you have faith in Christ then you will be justified, then your sins will be forgiven.

 

That’s not good news; in fact, it suggests that Christ’s Cross doesn’t actually change anything until we first invite Jesus to change our hearts.

 

But Jesus didn’t hang on the cross and with his dying breath say ‘It is accomplished

dot, dot, dot

if and when you have faith in me…’

 

No, Jesus says ‘It is accomplished.’

Through his faithfulness- not ours.

 

Think about what Paul’s saying:

your believing, your saying the sinner’s prayer, your inviting Jesus in to your heart, your making a decision for Christ- all of it is good.

But none of it is necessary.

None of it is the precondition for having your sins erased.

None of it is necessary for you being justified.

Because you already are justified- because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.

 

That’s it. That’s the good news.

And it’s such good news it reveals how our questions about and struggles with our faith aren’t so urgent after all.

 

You can have a mountain’s worth of doubts and you can have faith as small as a fraction of a mustard seed- no worries.

 

Because your justification, your being made right with God- it does not depend on you or your faith or lack thereof.

 

It depends on Jesus Christ and his faithfulness.

It’s the faith of Jesus that saves us and we simply get caught up in the story of his faithfulness. We participate in it. We don’t agree to it, nod our head to it or even, dare I say it, invite it into our hearts.

 

And this is what Paul freaking means when he calls faith a ‘gift’ from God. He doesn’t mean that some people who have faith have been given a gift while those who don’t have it have been screwed by the Almighty.

No, faith is a gift because it’s Jesus’ faith he’s talking about.

And Jesus, as we learn at Christmas, is a gift given to the whole world.

Even you.

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I clicked send. And, so far, I haven’t heard back.

rainbow-cross_aprilThis past weekend my cranny of Methodism in Virginia, clergy and lay, gathered for our annual conference. The theme of this year’s meeting was ‘Doing Bureaucracy Better than the IRS.’

Actually, it had something to do with the Holy Spirit, but you get the idea. The Spirit does blow where it will (John 3) but I’m pressed to think of any scripture where the Spirit blows as slowly or trepidatiously as United Methodism.

The most only anticipated item on this year’s agenda was Resolution 1, a move to petition the larger denomination to amend its official language about homosexuality at it’s global gathering in 2 years.

After the flurry of whereas’ the salient portion of the resolution read:

“Therefore, be it resolved that the Virginia Annual Conference petition the 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church to expunge the sentence “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching”…from the Book of Discipline…”

As soon as the motion was opened up for debate, a counter-motion was offered to table, ignore, stick-our-head-in-the-sand, push-to-the-back-burner, pull the blankie-over-our-eyes-and-pretend-this-issue-is-not-under-our-bed suspend discussion indefinitely so that we could instead engage in a ‘conversation’ on homosexuality in our denomination.

Even though this conversation has already gone on for decades and the respective sides have long since calcified and even though the ‘let’s have a conversation instead’ motion strikes me as not unlike those clergyman who tried to persuade Martin Luther King to ‘wait’ (‘this “wait” has almost always meant never’ King replied from his cell), here’s my ‘conversation-starter:’

If Paul can contradict Jesus on divorce, why can’t we reevaluate Paul on homosexuality?

Brian-BlountIn his essay, Reading and Understanding the New Testament on Homosexuality, biblical scholar Brian Blount advocates the position that certain biblical ethical prescriptions may be modified by the contemporary church, and, in their modified form, they may more faithfully reflect Paul’s own theological perspective.

Blount cites Paul himself as the precedent for the ethical re-evaluation of homosexuality.

For example, Blount points out, the Gospel writers are all unanimous in their presentation of Jesus’ views on divorce.

Jesus, according to the Gospels, is unambiguously against divorce.

Only in Matthew’s Gospel does Jesus allow the stipulation of divorce in cases of sexual infidelity (5.31-32).

In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul acknowledges Jesus’ teaching on this matter (1 Corinthians 7.10-11).

Nonetheless, in that same passage, Paul claims his own apostolic authority and allows for a reevaluation of Jesus’ teaching based on the context of the Corinthian congregation.

In other words, when it comes to divorce, Paul offers up his own ‘You’ve heard it said (from the lips of the Word Incarnate) but I say to you…’

The church at Corinth was struggling to apply their faith in a thoroughly pagan culture. Aware of the destructive effects pagan culture potentially posed to an individual’s and a church’s faith, Paul changes Jesus’ tradition and allows for divorce in the case of Christians who are married to unsupportive pagan partners.

In light of the Corinthian’s cultural context, and even though it stands in contrast to Jesus’ own teaching in the Gospels, Paul believes this ethical modification to be consistent with his larger understanding of God’s present work in and through Jesus Christ.

Such ethical deliberation and re-evaluation is not dissimilar to the process of discernment that the Christian Church later undertook with respect to scripture’s understanding of slavery.

Just as the Holy Spirit guided Paul to re-evaluate Jesus’ teaching in light of a different present-day context, Brian Blount posits that the Holy Spirit can and does lead Christians to re-evaluate Paul today.

When it comes to the matter of homosexuality, Blount argues that Romans 1 understands homosexuality as one symptom among many of the fallen world’s idolatry. Our contemporary situation is different, according to Blount.

If it is possible for contemporary Christians to concede that a homosexual person need not be an idolater, then Paul’s chief complaint may be removed, opening the way for Christians to re-evaluate Paul’s ethical prescriptions in a faithful manner.

It becomes possible then, Blount says, for Christians to conclude that faithful, monogamous, homosexual relationships can be consistent with God’s present-day redemptive activity.

It’s possible for Christians today to say faithfully ‘You’ve heard it said (from Paul) but, with the Spirit, we say to you…’

 

Untitled9This weekend we began our summer sermon series, Songs of the Messiah, during which we’ll look at how Paul uses the Psalms of the Old Testament throughout his argument in his Letter to the Romans.

The texts this weekend were Psalm 98 and Romans 1.16-17, Paul’s thesis statement.

To get at the meaning of ‘righteousness’ in scripture, a word whose meaning can get lost religious-speak, I invited a friend to join me for the sermon, Brian Stolarz. I’ve written about Brian on the blog before.

imagesBrian is a defense lawyer who has written a book, One Big Setup, about his experiences getting Alfred Dewayne Brown off of Death Row in Texas.

I’ll add the text of the sermon when I have it but you can listen to the audio below or in the sidebar to the right.

You can also download it in iTunes here.

 

Untitled9This weekend we kick-off a new sermon series for the summer, Songs of the Messiah, which will track the way St. Paul uses the Psalms in his Letter to the Romans to unpack who Jesus is and what God accomplished through him for Israel and the world.

In the first 3 chapters of Romans Paul famously argues that the creation itself is both a revelation of God’s love and a revelation of human sin, such is the extent of our depravity. Only through the faith of Jesus Christ, the Righteous One, is the story of Sin unwound and retold, writes Paul (3.22-25).

Another way of putting Paul’s point: the devil was right.

“You shall be as gods,” said the serpent to Eve, and he was right. We shall be as gods.’ At least that’s how the late Dominican philosopher, Herbert McCabe, saw it.

It’s Christian cliche to call the devil ‘the prince of lies,’ but for McCabe any proper understanding of the Jesus story hinges on the recognition that what the serpent promises Eve is true.

We will become as God.

The devil tells the truth.

Just as the devil tells the truth to Jesus in the wilderness. All authority on earth will be given to Jesus- is given to Jesus, as Christ as much says before ascends to the Father at the end of Matthew’s Gospel.

The devil tells the truth.

It’s just a question of how that truth will should come to pass.

imagesSays McCabe:

‘But the question is ‘How?’ How will we become as gods? In the delusory way of claiming a separate, independent divinity for ourselves, or by receiving the only authentic divinity as a gift from God himself in Christ through his faithfulness?’ 

The story of sin and salvation, according to McCabe, is really just the story of the two ways we become as g(G)od: on our own terms or by Christ.

‘Sin is itself a strange and distorted caricature of the gift of God. Sin is to grab for yourself autonomy, to deny your creature-hood, to make yourself a god; but the gift of God is to receive divinity, to be taken beyond creature-hood. 

Strangely, it is by accepting our creature-hood, by obeying the law of the Lord (which is just the law of our created being, the law of our humanity), it is in obeying this law that we are miraculously carried beyond it into the friendship of God.’ 

So the devil told the truth about the what- our eventual divinity.

It was the ‘how’ he and we were- and so often are- wrong about.

‘When we acknowledge our existence, our selfhood, our meaning as a gift from God we find that this gift is even greater than that, that we are given more than good creature-hood.’

The devil told the truth as far as he could know it. He could not know the means by which that would become true, that in the Son and through the Spirit we would be taken up into the very life and love- the friendship- of the Triune God.

Or, as St Athanasius summarized it so well:

God became human; so that, we might become God.

 

Brian BlountThanks to logistical wizardy of Teer Hardy (Ryan to my Michael Scott) we’ve started to do a weekly podcast here at Tamed Cynic.

For this installment, we’ve got the President and Professor of New Testament at Union Seminary, Brian Blount.

Dr. Blount was my teacher when we were both at Princeton. His work has focused on the Kingdom of God, the Gospel of Mark and the Book of Revelation. His new book is Invasion of the Dead: Preaching Resurrection.

For this podcast we discuss resurrection, revelation, zombies and whether contemporary Christians should preach what Paul said or do what Paul did. 

Come back to check out future installments. We’ve got Stanley HauerwasBrian Zahnd and Robert Two Bulls in the queue.

You can listen to the interview here below in the ‘Listen’ widget on the sidebar.

You can also download it in iTunes here.

Better yet, download the free mobile app here.

photo-1This weekend I concluded our sermon series on Generosity by pulling, at random, scripture passages having to do with money and taught on them.

One of the passages in the mix that I didn’t get to preach on was from 2 Corinthians 9.11-13

It’s a good one too so I thought it worth a look here:

11You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. 13Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others.

I always think of the Corinthians as this married couple who fight about sex and clothes and drinking, but really every time they fight they’re fighting about money.

Money comes up again and again in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians.

But unless you read the Book of Acts you don’t necessarily know why is so focused on money. In the Book of Acts, Luke tells us that Paul traveled throughout the Greek-Gentile world planting churches but also taking up a collection for the Christians back in Jerusalem.

And one of the reasons for the collection was that the Christians back in Jerusalem were suffering both a severe famine but also an intense persecution for their faith.

The other reason Paul was taking up a collection was an attempt to unify the Church- that from the very beginning of the faith one of the practices of being a Christian was to  give to others you’d never met, would never meet and with whom you had nothing in common except Christ.

So Paul, according to the Book of Acts, traveled from church to church, taking up this collection. Initially, we’re told, the Christians in Corinth, who were quite wealthy, were very enthusiastic about giving to the collection. But when it came time to kick-in what they had pledged…not so much.

I had a job going door-to-door when I was in college, and I always knew that when someone promised me they’d mail in a check rather than give it to me on their front porch that they weren’t going to give anything.

The Corinthians hadn’t given anything; meanwhile, the Christians in Macedonia, who were so poor Paul hadn’t even asked them to contribute to the collection, showed ‘rich generosity’ despite their poverty.

So that’s the context to all this talk of money in Corinthians.

To me, what’s really interesting in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians is how seamlessly Paul will go from the every day, nuts and bolts of our giving our money to imagery of God’s glory.

It’s even more interesting, as I mentioned this weekend, when you remember that the original manuscripts of Paul’s letters didn’t have any of the chapter and verse divisions that your bibles today do.

And so in a famous passage like 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul writes with this passionate rhetoric about how ‘if Christ has not been raised then we are still in our sins’ and where Paul mocks Death with a capital D “Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?’

And then the very next verse in chapter 16, verse 1 Paul tells the Corinthians to pass the offering plate.

Paul makes those kinds of moves, transitions that seem jarring to us, because for Paul our love of God and our love of neighbor is inseparable.

You see this in verse 12 where Paul uses the word ‘service’ to refer to giving to the collection.

The word there is λειτουργία, liturgy.

Worship.

The word ‘liturgy’ originally was a secular term. In Rome, it referred to the ‘service’ of wealthy Romans supplying for the needs of the poor in their community.

The first Christians took that word ‘liturgy’ and used it to refer both to their worship of God and their generosity to the poor.

You see by using the word liturgy to refer to both practices, the first Christians made sure we would know that our generosity to others is a way we worship God and that our worship of God is a way that we serve others.

Too often we focus on our giving as an act of charity; it’s something we do for the poor and the needy.

But when we focus on giving as an act of charity we split the Greatest Commandment into two.

We focus on our love of neighbor but forget that our giving is one of the necessary ways we love God- that’s why Paul says elsewhere that ‘God loves a cheerful giver.’ Because if our giving is an act of worship it has to be done out of joy not compulsion.

You see this in v. 13 of this passage where Paul writes that the ultimate reason for the Corinthians’ giving isn’t for the hungry and hurting in Jerusalem, as important as that remains.

No, the ultimate reason for the Corinthians’ giving is to glorify God.

The primary purpose of our generosity, Paul says, is to witness to our faith, to give evidence of the reality of God’s grace in our lives by the way we handle our money.

Remember, the Christians back in Jerusalem hadn’t been supportive of Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. They didn’t want Gentile Christians in the Church.

But Paul’s convinced that when the Jewish-Christians in Jerusalem see the extravagant generosity of the Gentile Christians they’ll have to come to the conclusion that God’s grace must be real and alive in these people’s lives.

And Paul was right.

If you go back and read the complaints that pagan Romans wrote about the first Christians, their biggest complaint- their primary observation about Christians- was always about how exceedingly generous Christians were.

Not just to other Christians but to pagans as well.

The first Christians made the Romans look bad they were so generous to others.

And the way the first Christians made converts was through the example of their exceedingly generous lifestyle.

The way they gave their money away, the way they welcomed strangers, the way they cared for widows and lepers, the way they rescued infants left to die in the fields- their generous lifestyle- not their doctrine, not their music, not their facilities- is what convinced unbelievers that Christ must be raised from the dead.

And that’s important to know in a culture like ours where 77% of the population will not attend any church this year.

Generosity is the single best way to witness to the grace and glory of God.

And even though it’s true that Christians as a demographic are more generous than any other group in the country, it’s also true that over half of all Christians give nothing.

Just imagine if Christians had the same reputation in the 21st century that they had in the first century.

 

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Heresy = Beliefs considered anathema by the ecumenical councils of the Christian Church

If Orthodoxy = ‘right praise’ then heresy = ‘wrong praise.’

*Leviticus 10: wrong praise = a very big deal

If Stanley Hauerwas is correct to assert that most Christians in America today are ‘functional atheists;’ that is, most Christians live in such a way that it makes no difference that God raised Jesus from the dead, then surely even more Christians today are inadvertent heretics, trodding paths of belief the ancient Church long ago labeled dangerous detours.

Today these ancient errors of the faith can be found wearing many different guises. For all you know, you might be wearing one too.

By pointing out what Christians DO NOT believe, we can get one step closer to what we do.

Heresy #7: Antinomianism

What Is It?

In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul famously asks his interlocutor, ‘if we’re saved by God’s grace and not by our deeds then should we keep on sinning so that God’s grace may abound even more?’

Antinomians are those who, not realizing Paul’s question is a rhetorical one and not bothering to read Paul further, answer: ‘Sure, why not?’

Displaying that logic does not always steer you true, antinomians hold that since the advent of Christ and the Gospel of grace, the Law, that is the moral conduct prescribed by God to his People in the Old Testament, is neither of use for Christians nor an obligation.

In other words:

If faith alone is necessary for salvation then the Law is unnecessary. 

Who Screwed Up First

While its roots go back to the ancient Church and its regrettable attitude towards Jews and their scripture, antinomianism is the crappy, white-elephant gift Protestantism has given the larger Church.

Antinomianism was the Jacob to the Protestant Reformation’s Esau, the inevitable and subsequent counter-charge to the Reformation’s critique of the Catholic Church’s ‘legalism’ and ‘works righteousness.’

You could blame Martin Luther who first projected onto the New Testament Pharisees, including Paul, the abuses of Luther’s own Medieval Catholicism. You could blame Martin Luther, for antinomianism is the predictable outcome to redefining the Gospel primarily in terms of justification by faith alone.

But the antinomianism reached its high point in the 17th century Puritan Colony of Massachusetts when Anne Hutchison, daughter of an Anglican priest, subscribed to the ‘free grace’ theology of John Cotton, a renegade Puritan preacher.

Hutchison found Cotton’s critique of Puritanism’s works righteousness persuading.

Hutchison then proved persuasive herself, recruiting others to the free grace movement.

Soon the Puritan leaders of Massachusetts (ie, Men) were persuaded to excommunicate and dispatch Hutchison. The regrettable theology of Hutchison was matched by the regrettable gender politics of the Church.

How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?

If you divide- and thereby render schizophrenic- God’s revelation of himself in the Old and New Testaments by saying that ‘Jews try to earn salvation by doing the works of the Law while Christians receive salvation by grace through faith,’ then you might be an antinomian.

You might be antisemitic too.

So was Luther.

But at least Luther, on paper, understood that desiring to live out the ethic of the Law was the fruit of any true encounter with the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

If you think Jesus does away the obligations of the Law rather than A) amping up the expectations of the Law and B) revealing in himself the Law’s all-along-aim then your ancestors might’ve hailed from the Bay State.

If you think you got right with God because you once came down during the altar call, invited Jesus into your heart and got born again during a moment of orchestrated, liturgized peer pressure and now it doesn’t matter if you cheat on your wife, give the poor only pennies and don’t bat an eye at the injustices of the world then you, my friend, are exactly why the Catholic Church got so bent out of shape about Luther nailing his Theses into the church door.

If you imagine that Christianity is really about love and that we should love others without the expectation or invitation for them to conform their lives to the Cross, then you’re an antinomian.

If you believe the Church should welcome everyone as they are and never critique their character or habits (thus leaving them as they are) then you’re a free grace- Bonhoeffer would say, cheap grace- heretic.

If inclusivity is a more urgent exhortation for you than calling others to conversion, repentance and a cross-bearing life then the one thing you’re NOT inclusive of is orthodoxy.

Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today

Marcus Borg

The Nones

Americans

United Methodists

United Methodist Pastors

All other Mainline Protestants

Evangelicals

Most Contemporary Christian songwriters

The Religious Right

Progressive Christians

Baby Boomers

Celebrities who opine about religion and ethics

Remedies

Read Paul’s Letter to the Romans, all of it- especially those chapters at the end no one ever quotes.

Read the Gospels and ask: Where does Jesus imply we just have to have faith?

Look at yourself in the mirror and consider: Do I want grace to be so amazing because the content of my character isn’t?

Become Mennonite.

Or get to know Jew.

Start with Jesus if you haven’t met him yet.

For the past four months, we’ve been working our way, chunk by chunk, through Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

Two weeks ago, on the way out of worship and having just heard a reading from Romans 8, a parishioner asked me:

That verse in Romans about all things working out for good for those who love God- I’ve never understood what that’s supposed to mean. Does it really mean everything works out in life for Christians? Because that’s not exactly my experience.

I disarmed the question with a dash of humor and a few sprinkles of theology and sent the questioner on their way. Out of narthex sight, out of pastor’s mind.

I didn’t think about their question again; that is, not until today.

Like many of you, I purchase most of my books through Amazon. Frequently Amazon will provide me with a list of suggested books that I ‘might like,’ titles presumed by the Amazon Borg to live in the same habitat as my previous purchases.

Because many of the books I purchase are theological, the Amazon algorithms apparently have tagged me as a reader of ‘Christian Literature’ and ‘Christian Inspiration.’

Yes, you were right to anticipate a dry-heave gag reflex. It’s hard for me to say, for example, in the case of For Every Season whether my credulity is strained more by the descriptor ‘Christian’ or ‘Literature.’

fes_lgIn fact a quick perusal through the virtual shelves of ‘Christian Fiction’ suggest there is a surprising audience out there for Anabaptist (Amish? Mennonite?) Romance novels.

Book covers abound that feature chaste yet well-endowed disciples who manage to wear their biblically-mandated head covering in a come hither way.

It makes one wonder if there’s likewise a Christian subcategory to torture porn novels?

Fifty Shades of Amish Wool perhaps?

I mean, the Amish are good at tying knots.

(It’s my idea- don’t steal it)

You won’t be surprised to learn that what truly kills me is Amazon suggesting that I ‘might like these books in Christian Inspiration.’

Glancing at these suggested texts, whose titles even my cynical mind couldn’t satirize better, I thought of that parishioner again and her question about that verse.

Does everything in life work out for good for Christians? For those who love God? For those who just pray hard enough?

Because that’s certainly the explicit promise in nearly all these ‘inspirational’ books, and while it may be inspirational to hear that the Bible/Faith/Prayer contains the secret to grant our every market-generated wish, it’s not at all clear that it counts as ‘Christian.’

So many of these ‘inspirational’ books peddle exactly what atheists accuse religion for being underneath the hood. ‘God’ isn’t really a name bound to a very specific historical narrative; ‘God’ is really just the word we use to designate what we want to change in our lives.

It’s the baldest kind of hope fulfillment.

Does everything work out for good if you love God enough and pray? I-DECLARE-428x620

Joel Osteen answers in the affirmative and has taken that ‘yes’ all the way to the bank.

Truth be told, I’ve actually read JO’s bestseller, Your Best Life Now. And in all however many pages, Rev Osteen never gets around to mentioning these essential bits of Christian logic:

If we’re made in the image of God

And Jesus is the image of the invisible God

Then we’re made to bear the image of Jesus, the incarnate God.

Therefore:

Your ‘best’ life (and mine and anyone else’s) is a life that resembles Jesus.

So when Paul writes to the Romans that “all things work together for good,” Paul’s definition of ‘good’ doesn’t mean a large (or even modest) home, a happy, healthy family, a fulfilling, well-paying job, a rock-solid marriage, or a long life.

‘Good’ in Paul’s equation

=

Like Jesus

That’s what Paul means when he goes on to write in Romans that those God foreknew God also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.

The trajectory of scripture, then, is about God fashioning us into Jesus’ image.

That’s what it means for ‘everything’ to ‘work out’ for ‘good.’

Eventually, Paul is saying, those who love God get to resemble Jesus.

We don’t (necessarily) get a nice home, a happy, healthy family, a fulfilling, well-paying job, a rock-solid marriage, or a long life.

Not only did Jesus lack all those things, Jesus was homeless, rejected, betrayed, suffered, and killed. And so was, we should point out, the man who wrote that verse about things working out for God’s people.

So whatever Paul means by things working out for good in our lives, it certainly doesn’t mean a life of empty parking spots, problem-less marriages and in-ground pools.

Therein lies the question in Paul’s memory verse about all things working together for good for those who love God.

If looking and living like Jesus is what Paul means by ‘good’ then just how good is your life?

 

Will the Jews be Saved?

Jason Micheli —  August 13, 2013 — 2 Comments

453703048Last weekend and this coming one, we’re thick in the middle of Paul’s core argument in his letter to the Romans, chapters 9-11.

 

All the ‘…faith in/of Jesus Christ’ and ‘There is therefore now no condemnation…’ and ‘…nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ passages build to this rhetorical climax where Paul’s working out the vexing mystery:

How is it that Messiah has come yet the People called to await him do not recognize him?

Seldom do mainline Christians dare wade into this part of Paul. Only occasionally does the lectionary cycle of assigned readings stop for a visit in this central section of Romans.

And, you’ve got to admit, it’s for good reason.

With perhaps the obvious exception of the Passion narrative itself (where Pilate abdicates any blood on his own hands for Jesus’ death and imputes it to the crowd), Romans 9-11 has more blood on it than any passage in the New Testament.

Jewish blood.

For nearly 2 millennia, minus a few centuries, Christians have- erroneously and sinfully- misread Paul in Romans 9-11, answering ‘Yes’ to Paul’s rhetorical question ‘Has God rejected People?’ which gave license for God’s adopted People to rejected his Elect People.

Take it from personal experience, a single walk through the Holocaust Museum will- and should- give you pause before ever utter a single speculation about the Jews’ salvation.

As Western Christians, we simply do not have the right to weigh in.

Because Romans 9-11 is so fraught with tragic interpretations, as I’m wont to do I’ve turned once again to Karl Barth. If for no other contribution, Barth is a historically significant theologian for rejecting Christian supercessionism (the idea that Christianity/Church transcends and replaces Judaism/Synagogue. Barth’s rejection of such thinking emerged in no small part from his experience in Nazi German. It also charted a path forward for post-holocaust theology.

A few basics from Barth’s point of view:

A promise from God (ie, the covenant) can’t be revoked. God can’t be unfaithful to himself.

Israel’s infidelity (ie, lack of recognition of Jesus the Messiah) is proof positive that God is a God of grace- to say Jews will not be saved is literally to pull the entire foundation of scripture out from under our faith. It’s like the Prodigal’s Father saying ‘Nah, you should’ve come home earlier.’

For Barth, the above added up to the impossibility of any mission to the Jews. They have their own inscrutable vocation and election within God’s eternal plan.

From Barth:

‘Anti-semitism in all its forms means rejection of the grace of God, covenant grace.’

‘The existence of the People Israel is the factual reality that testifies to the truth of the God who is bound to humanity and of the humanity that is bound to God.’

‘Election means not that Israel has chosen God but God Israel.’

‘God has always had as his partner not a peer but a human in dire need of mercy. The covenant is grounded solely on God’s goodness and not on human worthiness. The inequality of the partners can, thus, not threaten the covenant.’

 

Screen-Shot-2013-07-25-at-7.39.20-AMThese images are making the rounds in the blogosphere- at least if you’re a theological nerd then you’ve probably seen them making the rounds.

Being a proud and reasonably competent alum of Princeton, of which Jonathan Edwards was Prez, I’ve always been inclined towards protectiveness when it comes to the Great Awakener. Edwards represents the zenith of Reformed, Calvinist theology. Like him or not, he is likely America’s greatest public intellectual.

The pastor in me has always taken dark glee in the fact that Reverend Edwards routinely received scorn from his congregants for ‘not visiting enough,’ being impatient, and for speaking rashly and ‘intemperately’ towards them.

A man after my own heart…almost.

Overall, I think he gets a bad rap. If you know Edwards at all, then, odds are, you know him from AP US History in high school. Chances are every bit as good that if high school is where you met Edwards, then his enormous corpus of thought, which focused primarily on theological aesthetics and the Trinity, was reduced to a single, solitary sermon: ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.’

(I’m reduced to a cold, panic-riddled sweat at the thought that I might be known in perpetuity for just one of my sermons)

On the one hand, Jonathan Edwards is a perfect example of why some things should be left off limits to high school teachers.

On the other hand, though, a dozen years in ministry and even more of following Jesus and wading regularly into scripture convince me that my teenage, pre-Christian, straight from the lips of a high school teacher reaction to Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” was- as most primal instincts are- the right one. The righteous one.

For this quote:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or
some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked:
his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing
else…(Edwards)

Has nothing to do with this one:

If God is for us, who is against us? 32He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(Rom 8)

Which- albeit in this singular instance- makes Edwards, the strictest sense of the term, the anti-Christ.

Au Contraire

Jason Micheli —  July 22, 2013 — 1 Comment

Raised to Life PicWe continued our sermon series through Paul’s Letter to the Romans this weekend with 8.12-17. Paul structures his letter along a diatribe style; that is, Romans is a sustained argument with a hypothetical opponent or interlocutor. Because Romans takes this debate posture, I thought it would be good to mimic the text’s form by engaging in a diatribe of my own during the sermon. We did so by playing a little game called ‘Au Contraire.’

For the sermon time, the worshippers were seated at round tables. Each table had an assigned number and a printed assertion. We pulled numbered balls from a bingo tumbler. When a table’s number was called, the assertion was read and then Dennis Perry and myself had to agree or disagree with the statement- but not before being randomly assigned a pro or con position.

It was fun for us. The extemporaneous nature of it made it refreshing I think, and, perhaps more importantly, it demonstrated how believers can turn to scripture and the Christian tradition to arrive at different conclusions to questions, a fact which should encourage charity towards those with whom you disagree.

Here’s the audio from the last 2 of our 4 weekend services. We ranged around the room a bit so the sound isn’t as strong as I’d like.

1. Au Contraire- 9:45 Service     

 

2. Au Contraire- 11:15 Service     

Here’s this weekend’s sermon from Romans 4.1-5 for our series, JustifiedYou can also download it in the iTunes store under ‘Tamed Cynic.’Or, you can listen to the sermon here: 

1. The Stars are the Light of the World     

photo-4     Over Memorial Day Weekend I joined 1,000 people from around the world at for the Taize Gathering at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Taize is a monastery in Burgundy, France. Every week the brothers of Taize welcome thousands of pilgrims to their monastery in France to participate in the rhythms of their communal life.

Once a year some of the more than 100 brothers take their ‘community’ somewhere else in the world for a pilgrimage gathering.

This year the brothers were invited by the Lakota Nation to welcome pilgrims to Pine Ridge.

Just as pilgrims do at the monastery in Taize, we spent our time at Pine Ridge worshipping 3 times a day, sharing simple meals, and sharing our faith stories in small groups. photo-3

On Saturday of the Pilgrimage Weekend, after morning prayer and breakfast, we were assigned small groups to reflect on the morning scripture lesson.

I was told our small groups were assigned according to the order in which we’d registered for the Pilgrimage, but I swear it was due to some some cruel, cosmic joke I can’t be sure.

The seven of us in my small group sat down in a circle in the dry, prairie grass.

     Directly across from me in the circle sat a white-haired, tie-dyed Episcopal Bishop from Berkley, California.

     Next to the lady bishop sat a gay Episcopal priest from San Francisco.

     Next to him sat a Unitarian lay person from Boulder, Colorado.

     Next to him, a Catholic civil servant from Paris, France.

     Next to her, a women’s studies PhD candidate from Barcelona, Spain.

     Next to her, on my left, was a man who looked like a shorter, plumper, balder, older version of me- except he was dressed sloppy and had an unkempt beard.

     His green Velcro sneakers, red tube socks and Trotsky eyeglasses screamed ‘European Socialist.’

     And finally in the circle, there was me.

We began by going around the circle, introducing ourselves.

     I went second to last. As I’m want to do, I tried to charm them with self-effacing, sarcastic humor.

‘I’m a Methodist pastor from Virginia,’ I began, ‘and I just gotta say my congregation back home would be shocked to hear that I could be the most conservative person in any group.’

No one laughed, which, I suppose, just proves how liberal they all were.

‘You didn’t tell us your name,’ the Bishop said with a tone of voice that suggested what she really meant was: ‘I’d prefer not to make your acquaintance.’

     ‘Sorry, my name’s Jason’ I said, ‘Jason Micheli.’

And when I said ‘Micheli,’ the shorter, plumper, older, balder version of me shouted: ‘Micheli! Italiano!’

He shouted ‘Ciao!’

And then got up and embraced me like Gepetto rescuing Pinocchio from the Island of Lost Boys.

He rubbed his sweaty beard across my face as he man-kissed me on both my cheeks, and then he began ticking off the names of people he insisted I must be related to back in “Roma.”

Wiping his sweat from my face, I gestured for him to introduce himself.

He adjusted his glasses and said in a thick accent: ‘My name is Tomaso.’

Tomaso told us he was a scientist, a geologist, from Rome. And then he laughed nervously and said: ‘I am not a Christian. I am not a person of faith.’

Both times the accent landed heavy on the ‘not.’

5127ee0225791.preview-620Our bible study felt forced. Everyone in the group kept deferring to the bishop and, being Episcopalian, the bible was an unfamiliar to her.

The bishop said the types of knee-jerk things you’d expect an Episcopal Bishop from Berkley, California to say.

And- you’d be proud of me- initially, at least, I bit my tongue and didn’t respond with any snarky comments.

That is, until I remembered she wasn’t my Bishop- at which point I started to interrupt her with thoughtful, sober comments like:

‘Of course, you think that. You’re a tree-hugging, liberal, Baby Boomer Episcopalian from California.’

In truth, I wasn’t really interested in our bible study- because, really, I was dying to ask Tomaso, the paisano to my left, why he’d flown all the way from Italy, driven all the way from Denver, agreed to sleep in a horse pasture and go without running water and spend 4 days with Christians and celibate monks if he was NOT a person of faith.

When our bible study wrapped up, I grabbed Tomaso by the elbow and I said: ‘Tomaso, call it professional curiosity, but what are you doing here if you’re not a person of faith?’

And, a bit anticlimactically, he said: ‘Because my wife made me come.’

‘Well, that’s nothing new. Half the men in my church are there because their old ladies force them to come.’

Tomaso chuckled and grabbed his book- a science fiction novel- like he was about to leave, but I said: ‘Tell me- why don’t you consider yourself a person of faith?’

He smiled like a professor who’s not sure how to water down his material for a freshman class, and then he launched into what sounded like a well-rehearsed litany. His reasons against faith.

‘I am a scientist’ he began, ‘and there is no scientific explanation for a 7 day creation, for an incarnation, for a resurrection.’

    ‘Gosh, there isn’t? I guess it’s a good thing scripture doesn’t try to explain them scientifically then, huh?’

My sarcasm apparently didn’t translate because he just kept ticking off his reasons for not believing:

How the virgin birth is based on a mistranslation.

How faith is just a psychological crutch.

How the Gospels don’t always agree with one another.

How the Church has been responsible much evil and injustice.

How it’s superstitious to think bread and wine can become anyone’s body and blood.

How St Paul endorses slavery and sexism.

How Revelation is about Rome not the Rapture.

How scripture is not the literal Word of God but instead bears all the messy fingerprints of people like you and me.

His list was surprisingly long and surprisingly unoriginal. And when he got to the end, he held out his hands like a magician, whose just disappeared his assistant, and he said:

‘See, mi amico, there’s nothing left for me to believe. There’s nothing left for me to be a person of faith.’ 

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‘Abraham believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.’ 

     There may be no other sentence in the Old Testament that has been more significant to followers of the New. And more misleading.

     God told Abraham that he and his wife, Sarah, would have millions of descendants- as many as the stars in the sky.

     Abraham believed God and that was enough for God to credit Abraham as ‘righteous.’

Ever since Martin Luther, the Founding Father of Protestantism, Father Abraham has served as Exhibit A for what we think it means for us to have faith:

Abraham did not lift a finger to be saved. 

Abraham did nothing to earn or deserve it. 

Abraham simply believed in God. 

Abraham was saved by faith alone. 

At least that’s what we think Paul means in Romans 4.

But here’s the problem:

When we reduce Abraham to an example (for us) of someone who has faith in God and is rewarded accordingly- we lose the biblical plot of what God is doing IN and THROUGH Abraham.

And when we lose that plot, the seam Paul’s entire argument in the Book of Romans unravels.

Because the argument Paul is weaving from Romans 1 to Romans 16 is that what we discover in Jesus Christ is God making good on a promise first made to Abraham.

Because when you go back to the Book of Genesis, you notice:

It doesn’t say Abraham believed IN God.  

It says Abraham believed God

It doesn’t Abraham accepted God as his personal savior. 

It says Abraham believed God

That is, Abraham accepted something God said. 

Abraham believed a single thing God said. 

A very specific thing God said. 

Abraham believed the promise: the promise that his children would be like the stars in the sky. 

But this promise, it isn’t about God providing Abraham with progeny.

The promise is that THROUGH Abraham God would create a new and distinct People in the world.

The promise is that the way God would pick the world back up from its Fall, the way God would heal the world’s sin, the way God would bring forth a New Creation would be by creating a New People.

The promise is that through Abraham God would create a People who would do what Adam failed to do, a People whose trust in God and trust in one another would provide an alternative to the ways of the world.

abramThe stars God promises to Abraham- they’re meant to be a light to the world.

That’s the unconditional commitment God promises and that’s what Abraham believes.

And God, scripture says, reckons that to Abraham as ‘righteousness.’

Now if, as I told you weeks ago, ‘God’s Righteousness’ is a specific biblical term that refers to God’s commitment to undo the injustice of the world and usher in a New Creation, then Abraham being ‘reckoned righteousness’ means Abraham was credited, acknowledged, signed up as a participant in God’s New Creation work.

Abraham didn’t believe everything he could possibly believe about God; in fact, plenty remained that Abraham still struggled to believe:

Abraham lacked faith that he and his wife’s old bodies could produce new life.

Abraham doubted the events in his life would pan out as God had predicted.

Abraham questioned God’s justice and mercy.

But despite his doubts, despite his questions, despite those parts of God’s Word he scratched his head at and crossed his fingers through- what Abraham always believed, what Abraham always had faith in, what it always meant for Abraham to be a person of faith, the person of faith, was his faith in this single promise:

    The promise that God so loved the world, God would not give up on what he had made.

     That just as God’s first creation began with God calling into the void ‘Let there be light,’ God’s New Creation would begin by God calling a People who would be a Light to the world.

pastedGraphic_1.pdf

Sunday afternoon, a group of us there for the Pilgrimage weekend made another pilgrimage.

To Wounded Knee.

The place where the US Army, without provocation, slaughtered over 300 Indians, little more than a hundred years ago.

2/3 of the victims were children…with their mothers.

In 1973 Wounded Knee became the site of a standoff between Lakota Indians and the Federal Government. Resulting in more violence.

Wounded Knee remains a festering reminder of suffering and injustice that persists to this day.

So on Sunday afternoon, in reverent silence, we loaded on to 3 school buses.

And silently we rode the 30 minutes to Wounded Knee, riding past shacks and trailers and the kind of poverty that seems to fit a 3rd world nation better than this one.

When we arrived at Wounded Knee, the brothers put on their gleaming, white-as-light, monastic robes and then they led us all, silently, down the road and up the hill to the graveyard. photo-2

Some locals from the reservation were there, loitering, sitting on top of rusted, broken down cars and squinting at us with justifiable suspicion.

There’s a church there by the graveyard. It had ‘Fuck you white people’ spray-painted on the sanctuary doors.

An old woman was in the graveyard planting flowers by an old tombstone while a young woman tamped down the dirt of a freshly dug grave.

The mass grave, the hole where the victims bodies had been dumped, is at the center of the cemetery.

Brother Alois, the head of the monastery at Taize, motioned silently for us to make a circle around the mass grave.

I glanced around the circle at all the people, literally, from all over the world, from as many nations as there are stars in the sky.

Then Brother Alois held out his hands for us to take hold of one another’s hands.

Then Brother Alois bowed his head and so did we.

And then we prayed. Silently.

For a long time.

Silently- because how else do you pray when some of the people you’re holding hands with share the same names as the bodies you’re standing on top of and still suffer the consequences of so many empty words?

As Brother John, another monk, had told us the previous morning, we were going to Wounded Knee:

‘as people of faith, to a place of broken promises, to be a silent, visible sign of a different promise, the promise that the God who made the world in love will, with us and through us, redeem it.’ 

Many of us kept the silence as we rode the way back from Wounded Knee. After we’d returned to our campsite, I ran into Tomaso. Both of us were coming out of adjoining Port O’ Johns and reaching for the hand sanitizer.

     ‘If it isn’t Doubting Tomaso’ I said.

‘Mi amico, how are you?’

     ‘I’m not sure. I just got back from Wounded Knee.’

‘How was that?’

     ‘Did you not go?’

‘To pray?’ and he laughed like it was a ridiculous notion. ‘No, I stayed here and read my book.’ And he held up his sci-fy novel.

     ‘Like I tell my wife: faith is the easy way out in this world.’

‘Easy? How can someone with a PhD be so stupid?

Jesus has done a lot of things in my life but made my life easier is definitely not one of them. Faith hasn’t been my way out of the world; faith has thrust me into the world: to places I’d rather not go, to pain and poverty I’d rather not have weigh on my conscience, to people towards whom I’d be happy not to feel any responsibility. 

Easy way out? Are you a complete idiot?

Most of the time, to believe in God is to feel heartbroken over all the places you see God absent in the world. I just watched and prayed as a 20 year old Indian girl wept over a mass grave beneath her and a hopeless future in front of her. Faith isn’t an escape from the world’s problems; it’s a summons to wade waist deep into its problems.

I know you’re a geologist, Tomaso, but does that mean you have rocks in your head?’ 

     I thought to myself.

But instead I squirted some Pure El into my hands and I said- the only thing I said:

‘Easy way out? That’s and  interesting indictment coming from someone who spent the afternoon relaxing in his tent, reading a trashy novel.’

Doubting Tomaso laughed and said: ‘Like I said, there’s too many things I don’t believe ever to be a person of faith.’

‘Tomaso, you don’t seem to understand that, being a pastor, I’ve heard all the reasons not to believe before and, as a Christian, I struggle with all of them myself.’

‘Why do you care so much about me anyway?’ Tomaso asked, ‘Do you care about ‘my salvation’?’ he said with sarcastic air quotes.

     ‘That’s just it- it’s not about you and your salvation. Ever since Abraham, it’s never just been about you, you selfish coward. It’s about God calling- God needing- people to be light for the world’ I wanted to scream at him. 

But I didn’t.

And he finished wiping the Pure-El into his hands and said ‘Ciao.’

And then he walked back to his tent, and with the world just a little bit darker for it.

 

 

 

 

 

Justified_2010_Intertitle_8064This weekend we continue our series through Romans 3-4, Justified.

Romans 3.21-31 is the text, and, considering the role its played in Christian history, it’s quite possible this is the most important New Testament passage. It’s where Paul picks up his thesis statement from Romans 1.16-17 to display how God’s righteousness (God’s covenant justice, is how NT Wright puts it) is revealed through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. This ‘justifies’ us, Paul says, and we need respond only by faith(fulness) of our own.

Thence the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone- as opposed to ‘works.’

How this passage has been interpreted and continues to be so is problematic in precise ways I don’t have the energy to unpack. Suffice it to say that the whole faith vs works debate neither resembles Paul’s actual authorial aim nor does it fit easily, if at all, into the Gospel’s schema, which seems to have a lot to say about us being judged according to works.

Playing on an old computer recently, I came across this old sermon of mine on Matthew 25. It reflects on this discontinuity between our reading of Paul and the clear reading of Jesus’ teachings.

Matthew 25.31-46  (10/26/08) 

My Week of Living Biblically

So, someone should’ve told Matthew that he had it all wrong. Matthew apparently didn’t get the memo. Clearly he doesn’t know that you and I- we’re saved by grace. Not by our works. Not by our good deeds. Not by our charity.

And if it’s not Matthew’s fault, then someone should’ve set Jesus straight. Someone should’ve told Jesus that Paul says: our salvation is a gift. It’s not something we earn or deserve because we could never do enough to earn or deserve what God has to give.

Someone should’ve sat Jesus down and said: ‘Look, what’s the problem? Paul explains this very clearly. We’re made righteous not by anything we do but by what Christ has done for us. We’re justified not by our works but on the basis of Christ’s work on the Cross.’

Someone should’ve told Jesus: ‘That’s not the way it works. When you come back again in glory, you’re supposed to judge us based not on what we do but based on our faith in you.’

It’s our faith that saves us. Not our works. Not our good deeds. Not our charity. I mean…that’s what makes us Protestants. That’s what I was taught in seminary. That’s what I was tested on before the bishop ordained me.

Except, here’s the rub:

Almost nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus say that you and I will be judged based on our beliefs, our faith. Instead, almost everywhere Jesus’ harsh words of judgment are reserved for those who do not show mercy or love to their neighbors.

     St. Paul says we’re saved by our faith.

     But today Jesus says when it comes to the Kingdom it’s all about what you’ve done for the least of these.

      Okay, which is it?

Faith or works? I mean…how do you reconcile that kind of incongruity? To be honest, I don’t know if I can answer that question. The bible study I help lead on Sunday nights has been confused over this very question for weeks now. I read today’s passage last Sunday evening. I read it over and over and over, and I thought myself into a tangle of theological knots.

And that’s when it hit me: maybe my thinking is the problem. Maybe my problem is trying to understand this passage, trying to square this passage with that passage, trying to reconcile what Jesus says here with what Paul says there. Maybe my problem is trying to approach this scripture with my head when Jesus just wants me to live it.

Maybe my thinking is the problem. Maybe my problem is the way I constantly make my faith about what I believe so that, for me, the life of faith is about getting those beliefs just right. Maybe Jesus teaches what he teaches because he wants me to live it. A novel concept, I know.

     Sunday night a week ago I just asked myself: What would it look like for me to live out this passage in my life? In my day-to-day, ordinary life what would it look like for me to take Jesus’ words seriously?

So, last Sunday night, in the laboratory of my mind, I hatched a little experiment.

I decided that this week I would do what Jesus tells us to do. I decided that if I saw someone who was hungry, I would give them food. If I met someone who was thirsty, I’d give them water. Someone without clothes- I’d give them mine.

No excuses.

No assuming that someone else will do something.

I decided that if I encountered a stranger, I would treat them as if they were Jesus Christ.

That was my experiment- my commitment- this week. It just so happens that this week I also traveled to Kansas City for a young clergy fellowship in which I participate.

The first trial of my experiment came in the food-court at the Charlotte airport. I had a layover and was grabbing some lunch. I went to sit down and, scanning the dining room for a table, I noticed a man all alone, eating his burger and fries in an absent sort of way. He was maybe 70 years old.

Before I say any more, I should tell you, in case you don’t me very well, that I’m a shy person by nature. Typically, I’m reserved, introverted, quiet- I never do what I did.

I took my lunch and my luggage and I walked over to the man’s table, and I said: ‘I noticed you’re eating alone. Would you mind if I sat here and gave you some company?’

He kind of looked at me over the rim of his glasses and then looked around the dining room- probably to see if he was the butt of some practical joke but maybe to point out all the other people who were contentedly eating alone. After a moment, he motioned with his French fry filled fingers for me to sit down. ‘I’m Jason,’ I said. ‘Don,’ he replied.

He took a few bites more and then he asked me: ‘Do you always offer to sit down and eat with strangers?’ At first, I just said ‘No’ but he kept looking at me for more so I said: ‘Look, I was reading the bible last night, the part where Jesus says to welcome strangers, and I made a promise to myself that this week I would just do what Jesus teaches.’

Now, you can say that kind of thing here in church and it’s cool, it sounds reasonable. When you say that to strangers in an airport Burger King, it totally freaks people out.

When Don heard me say that he stiffened, sat up and scooted his chair back a bit. You could tell he was expecting me to hit him up with some kind of Jesus pyramid scheme, and he was ready to say ‘No thanks’ to whatever tract I was about to pull out of my pocket.

     ‘Don’t worry,’ I said, ‘I don’t have any agenda. I just want to eat with you.’

‘You’re kind of strange, aren’t you? Do you always go up to strangers talking about Jesus?’

‘No, not ever,’ I said, ‘I’m a minister.’

We talked for a while. He told me he’d never really gone to church, not since he was child. Faith had never been a part of his life.

‘My brother died,’ he said, ‘that’s where I’m going, to his funeral in Ohio.’

For a few minutes more, Don told me about his brother. When Don checked the time on his watch, I asked him. I said: ‘I don’t want to pressure you. You don’t have to say yes, but would it be okay if I prayed with you?’ And he said yes.

My second trial came later that evening. From the airport, I took a taxi to my hotel. The cabdriver’s ID sitting there on the dashboard said that his name was Omar. The cab was still driving slowly over the speed bumps in the arrivals loop of the airport, and I reached my hand over the seat and said: ‘Omar, I’m Jason.’

Eventually, he shook it, but for a while he just stared at my hand like I’d found something that had long been missing in the backseat of his car.

Having learned from my previous conversation with Don, I just decided to come out with it this time.

‘Omar,’ I said, ‘I’m a Christian and this week I’m working on following Jesus better, and I was just wondering if there was something going on in your life that I could be praying for.’

Again, I never talk like this. Even now I cringe when I hear myself say it. I know how lame it makes me sound.

‘Come again?’ Omar asked and turned the volume down on National Public Radio.

     So I went through it all over again. ‘I’m a Christian. I was reading the bible last night and I promised myself that this week I would try to follow Jesus better and I was just wondering if there’s something going on in your life that I could be praying for?’

Omar crinkled his eyebrows and stared at me through his rearview mirror. ‘What’s the catch?’ he asked me. ‘There’s no catch,’ I said.

For several miles he didn’t say anything. The silence was louder than the volume on NPR. But when we got out on the highway he said to me: ‘My wife’s pregnant. We’ve had two miscarriages before. You can pray for that.’

Third trial.

On Tuesday my clergy fellowship visited a hip, bohemian kind of church called Kansas City: Revolution. The church runs a Soup Kitchen in their basement, feeding hundreds of homeless and working poor twice a day. We ate lunch there that day.

After I got through the lunch line I saw that my clergy group- they were all sitting together at a table in one corner of the room. And I saw that opposite them was a table that was empty but for one homeless man. I sat down and ate with him…as much as I didn’t want to.

He was dressed in a patchwork sort of way with sweatpants over jeans over a jogging suit. The View was playing on the TV there in the room, but he was staring intensely at something over it. He was eating his rigatoni like he had a grudge against it, and his whole body seemed coiled in anger or anxiety. I’m sure he had some mental illness that explained all that, but that didn’t make the meal any less awkward for me.

     I laid off the Jesus talk. I just tried to make conversation with him. I asked him his name. I asked about him. I told him my name and about me. I poured him a cup of coffee and offered to get him more food.

Nothing. He didn’t say anything to me. Honestly, it was painful.

When he was finished eating, he got up hurriedly and said: ‘Thanks for the conversation.’

I never got his name.

      Let me be clear. I share this with you all not to impress you with how faithful I am, how saintly I am. I share it with you not to impress you but to confess to you: to confess how normally I don’t do those kinds of things, how too often I treat my faith, my beliefs, my worship- how I treat it all like I’m practicing for a game that I never actually play.

The apostle James, in his letter, points out how even demons believe in God. A faith without acts of mercy and love to others, James says, is not a faith that’s alive. A faith that never gets around to playing the game isn’t really faith.

Just look at Jesus’ parable. Those who are separated out and sent to Hell- they’re not condemned for any bad or wicked things they did. Jesus doesn’t say they kicked a beggar in the street or spit on a lonely stranger or cursed at a homeless person.

     They didn’t do anything bad. They just didn’t do anything.

 

 

Junk in the Trunk

Jason Micheli —  May 13, 2013 — 4 Comments

Justified_2010_Intertitle_8064Here’s the sermon from this past weekend on Romans 3.9-20.

You can listen to it in the ‘Listen’ widget on the side of the blog.

And also here:

1. Junk in the Trunk     
 

As many of you know, I do a lot of my work at Starbucks.

I have my reasons.

For one thing, I get more accomplished without Dennis pestering me to show him how his computer works.

But to be honest, the main reason I go to Starbucks…is because I like to eavesdrop. 

It’s true. What ice cream and cheesecake were to the Golden Girls eavesdropping is to me.

At Starbucks I’m like a fly on the wall with a moleskin notebook under his wing.

I’ve been dropping eaves at coffee shops for as long as I’ve been a pastor and, until this week at least, I’ve never been caught.

This week I sat down at a little round table and started to sketch out a funeral sermon.

At the table to my left was a 20-something guy with ear phones in and an iPad out and a man-purse slung across his shoulder.

At the table to my right were two middle-aged women. They had a bible and a couple of Beth Moore books on the table between them. And a copy of the Mt Vernon Gazette.

The first thing I noticed though was their perfume. It was strong I could taste it in my coffee.

Now, in my defense I don’t think I could properly be accused of eavesdropping considering just how loud the two women were talking. Like they wanted to be heard.

Their ‘bible study’ or whatever it had been was apparently over because the woman by the window closed the bible and then commented out loud:

‘I really do need to get a new bible. This one’s worn out completely. 

I’ve just read it so much.’ 

 

Not to be outdone, the woman across from her, parried, saying just as loudly:

‘I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t spend time in the Word every day. 

I don’t know what people do without the Lord.’ 

“They do whatever they want” her friend by the window said.

And I said- to myself- ‘Geez, I’ve sat next to two Flannery O’Connor characters.’

I assumed that since they were actually reading the bible there was no way they attended this church, but just to make sure I gave them a double-take.

 

They had perfectly permed hair flecked with frosted highlights. And they had nails in which I could see the reflection of their large, costume jewelry.

 

“Baptists” I thought to myself.

 

They continued chatting over their lattes as the woman by the window flipped through the Mt Vernon Gazette. She stopped at a page and shook her head in disapproval.

Whether she actually said ‘Tsk, tsk, tsk,’ or I imagined it I can’t be sure.

 

The other woman looked down at the paper and said: ‘Oh, I heard about that. He was only 31.’ 

 

‘Did you hear it was an overdose?’ the woman by the window said like a kid on Christmas morning.

And that’s when I knew who they were gossiping about. I knew because I was sitting next to them writing that young man’s funeral sermon.

‘Did he know the Lord?’ the woman asked.

‘Probably not considering the lifestyle’ the woman by the window said without pause.

 

They went on gossiping from there.

They used words like ‘shameful.’

They did not, I noticed, use words like ‘sad’ or ‘tragic’ or ‘unfortunate.’

 

It wasn’t long before the circumference of their conversation spun its way to encompass things like ‘society and what’s wrong with it,’ how parents need to pray their kids into the straight and narrow, and how this is what happens when our culture turns its back on God.’

 

After a while they came to a lull in their conversation and the woman opposite the window, the one with the gaudy bedazzled cross on her neck, gazed down at the Mt Vernon Gazette and wondered out loud:

‘What do you say at a funeral like that?’ 

 

And without even looking at them, and with a volume that surprised me, I said:

‘The same damn thing that’ll be said at your funeral.’ 

     They didn’t even blush. But they did look at me awkwardly.

‘I hardly think so’ the woman by the window said, sizing me up and not looking very impressed with the sum of what she saw.

And so I laid my cards down: ‘Well, I probably won’t be preaching your funeral, but I will be preaching his.’ 

 

And then I pointed at her theatrically worn bible, the one resting on top of her copy of A Heart Like His by Beth Moore, and I said: ‘If you actually took that seriously you’d shut up right now.’

     “No one is righteous, not one.” 

Sounds a little harsh, right? I mean, no one?

Just try filling in the blank of Paul’s assertion. Think of the best person you can and stick them down inside Paul’s sentence and listen to how it sounds.

     No one is righteous, not one, not even Mother Theresa.

No one is righteous, not one, not even Gandhi.

No one is righteous, not one, not even your Mother. (Happy Mother’s Day)

When you hear today’s scripture text the first time through it sounds like this is Exhibit A for everything people hate about Christianity.

Here’s this God who made us and then made a measuring stick that was just a little bit higher than the best of us and a lot higher than most of us.

But to hear it that way is to miss who Paul is speaking to and where this falls in Paul’s letter.

In case you’re just tuning in, so far Paul has spent chapters 1 and 2 of his letter pointing out everything that’s wrong with the world. Everything that’s broken in God’s creation.

And in chapters 1 and 2, Paul makes his case by pointing his finger at “those people.”

“Them.”

Not the good, every Sunday people at church in Rome but those other people. ‘Society.’ You know, those people? The ‘lost’ people who don’t believe in God, who don’t attend worship, don’t raise their children right.

Those people.

They’re greedy, Paul says. Violent even. They’ve got no morals or values.

‘Just listen to the way they talk’ says Paul, ‘all cursing and slander.’

Those people.

They’re broken the institution of marriage and the family. They just hop from one bed to the next, one mate to another, like people are just a means to an end.

Those people.

They’ve got no commitment. No decency.

Paul spends chapters 1 and 2 pointing at ‘those people’ and ticking off their every sin and flaw.

And you can bet that with each and every indictment, you can imagine as the accusations build, the members at First Church Rome nodded right along with self-satisfied smiles on their faces.

     You can imagine them saying to themselves: ‘That’s right, that’s exactly how those people are. Thank God I’m not like those people.’ 

     And that’s Paul’s rhetorical trap because in chapter 3 he turns his aim at the good People of God, and he says: ‘No one is righteous, not one.’ 

Which is Paul’s way of saying: not even you.

And then Paul hits them, us, with this battering ram of accusations about how we sin every day with our minds and our lips and our hands and feet, by what we do and by what we leave undone.

And Paul lifts those accusations, one by one, word for word, straight out of scripture.

And that’s Paul’s point.

That’s Paul’s point when he says we’re not justified by the law, by scripture.

You see, the takeaway from today’s text isn’t that you’re a perpetual disappointment to God. If that’s what you leave with then you’ve missed what Paul’s doing here.

The takeaway is that belonging to a religious community doesn’t make you any closer to God than anyone else. Believing in the bible doesn’t make you a better person than anyone else because that same bible indicts you too.

     You may go to church every Sunday but the Book of Micah says God hates your praise if there’s a single poor person in the streets.

You may be a good mother and love your kids, but the Book of Mark says if you don’t love Jesus more then…

You may be a clergy person like me, you might’ve given your whole career to God, but the best the Book of Matthew has to say about that is that I’m like a white-washed tomb, a hypocrite with lies on the inside.

Don’t confuse your place in the pews with a place in God’s favor- that’s Paul’s point- because the only advantage this (the bible) gives us is that it tells the truth about us.

Who we really are.

    ‘No one is righteous. Not one.’ 

The woman by the window actually did shut up for a moment, clearly trying to figure out how this had become a 3 person conversation.

And then it hit her: ‘Have you been eavesdropping on us?’ 

‘Of course not,’ I lied.

‘Why don’t you mind your own business’  she scolded.

‘But that’s just it’ I said, ‘it is my business. I’m a preacher and so I couldn’t help but notice that I had two Pharisees sitting next to me.’ 

She narrowed her eyes and lowered her voice: ‘Listen, young man. I’ve been saved. I love the Lord, talk to him and read his Word every day.’ 

‘Apparently you’ve not retained very much’ I mumbled.

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ she asked with mustered outrage.

‘It means you’re no better than that guy over there’ and I pointed to a homeless guy who was nursing his coffee and muttering to himself.

‘In fact, you’re not good at all. And neither am I. None of us is in a position to judge anyone else, and someone with a worn out bible should already know that.’ 

I thought that I’d just played a trump card. The end.

‘Well, isn’t that exactly what you’re doing right now? she asked me. And suddenly I felt the tables turning.

‘Uh, what do you mean?’ I asked.

‘Well, it sounds like you’ve been eavesdropping on us for the last 10 minutes and judging us the whole time.” 

I felt myself blush: ‘Not the WHOLE time.’ 

‘I bet you started judging us before you even heard what we were talking about.’

‘I did not’ I lied, ‘Don’t forget you’re talking to a pastor.’ 

And I thought that was the end of it, but then she turned her chairs towards me, like we are all together, and she asked:

     ‘So, what makes you do it? Why are you so quick to stick your nose in other people’s junk and judge them?’ 

I considered punting on her question, telling her I had work to do and leaving it at that.

But she’d caught me eavesdropping so I thought I should balance out my vice with a little virtue.

I told her the truth: ‘Probably because I have junk of my own that I don’t know what to do with.’ 

‘Me too’ she said, and suddenly she dropped her guard like we were fellow addicts at an AA Meeting.

She said: ‘I’m constantly carrying around things I’m not proud of, things I’m ashamed of, things I try to keep locked and hidden away, because I don’t know what to do with them.’  

 

And then her friend, the one opposite the window, sipped her coffee and then said: ‘Me three.’ 

I’ve been a pastor long enough to know that if you’d been sitting there you too would’ve said..

Me four.

Because it’s true of all of us.

We condemn and we criticize and we label and we gossip and we judge.

We raise an eyebrow at other people’s mistakes, other people’s sins, other people’s problems- because we’re carrying around our own junk and we don’t know what to do with it.

 

But Paul shows us what to do with our junk.

Paul shows us what to do with the worst secrets about ourselves that we carry around with us.

     You can’t forget that when Paul directs his attack in chapter 3 at religious people, the first person Paul has in mind is Paul.

     You can’t forget that when Paul levels the accusation that ‘No one is righteous, not one’ Paul’s speaking in the first person before he’s speaking about any other person.

Paul cursed and condemned Christians. Paul’s encouraged executions and stood by smiling while Christians were stoned to death.

Paul’s the one whose throat was an open grave.

Paul’s the one who used his tongue to deceive and had venom on his lips.

Paul’s the one whose mouth was full of bitterness, whose feet were swift to shed blood.

Paul’s the one who knew not the way of peace…until he met the Resurrected Christ.

And after he meets the Risen Christ, Paul is free to own up to all of it.

All the junk he would otherwise want to hide and deny and push down and repress and keep locked and hidden away.

Paul shows us what we can do with our junk.

Paul shows us that if we’re more convinced of God’s grace than the sin we’re convinced we must keep secret from everyone, then we can open up this junk we carry around with us and we can say:

‘No one is righteous, no one, especially not me. 

     Look at what I’ve done. 

     This is who I was. 

     These are the words I spoke in anger that can never be taken back

     This is the relationship I pretended was fine until it unraveled away. 

     These are the kids I took for granted until they were grown and gone. 

     This is the person I see in the every mirror every day and have never learned to love. 

    This is the addiction I always insisted didn’t have the better of me. 

     This is the insecurity that masks itself as cynicism. 

     These are all the people I refused to forgive. 

     This is the person closest to me I cheated on…

     But God…God forgives…all of it.’ 

     Paul shows us that our worst junk can become a living, breathing example

of what God’s amazing grace can do.

Which is kind of a shame.

Because I’ve been a pastor long enough to know that most of you pretend you’re not so desperate as to need a grace that’s anywhere near amazing.

Most of you pretend you’re not actually carting this junk around and have no idea what to do with it.

For many of you, church is the last place where you’re really you, and Sunday morning is the time of the week you’re the least open about who you really are.

Church is where you grin and pretend like it’s all good and you’ve got your ______together.

Many of you have come to church for years so determined to not let anyone find out what’s in here (junk in the trunk) that you’ve never trusted Jesus Christ in here (your heart).

And that’s a shame.

Because Paul shows us- the things we’re most burdened by are the things the world most needs to hear.

Paul shows us that if we open this up and admit that no one is righteous, not even me…and here I’ll give you a ‘for instance’

Paul shows us that if we can say that then what someone else can hear is: ‘If God’s grace is for them…then it’s even for me…’    

 

     Yesterday afternoon nearly 500 gathered to celebrate that young man’s funeral.

We sang Amazing Grace.

We heard a reading from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. It was different words but the same meaning. And I preached, the Gospel.

The same message I’d preach at any of your deaths.

After the funeral, I was walking past the receiving line, which started here at the altar and snaked its way to the other end of the building, and one of the deceased’s friends grabbed my elbow and said to me: ‘If what you said is true for him, then it’s true for me too…right?’ 

     And I said: ‘Yeah.’ 

    And he let go of my elbow and said, ‘Thanks for sharing that.’